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Caroline Parnisari, LifeTown program director, provides life lessons from students’ front lawn.

Organizations such as LifeTown Columbus in New Albany, Friendship Circle of Cleveland in Pepper Pike and Milestones Autism Resources in Warrensville Heights are ensuring that children with special needs receive necessary educational support and life skills despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

LifeTown Columbus helps provide students with one-on-one experiences that build life skills, including time and money management, financial literacy, and communication and interpersonal skills. The nonprofit serves more than 100 schools in the Columbus area, with 6,000 students visiting each year.

Friendship Circle of Cleveland provides students with social and recreational experiences to help youth acquire confidence and self-esteem. The organization serves 150 students at 20 schools, working with 200 high school volunteers.

Milestones Autism Resources offers children and their families a variety of services, including consultations on how to meet individualized education program goals, and planning and support for teens to transition from school to college or a career. Milestones serve hundreds of youth and adults in Northeast Ohio each year.

Each organization helps supplement in-school education, including working in partnership with schools through an IEP, which are plans tailored to a child’s individual educational needs to ensure the best possible teaching, learning and results.

However, schools and service providers face unique problems in achieving the goals of the IEP during the pandemic. First, many schools are not yet sure whether they will conduct classes in person, virtually, or some combination of both, leading to uncertainty about how schools and these organizations will work together.

Also, serving students with special needs during the pandemic can be problematic. Many of these students have sensory challenges that prevent them from using masks and do not fully understand personal boundaries, leading to problems with physical distancing.

Virtual programming has its challenges, as many of these students have trouble focusing for long periods, making this learning ineffective, according to Veronica Zielinski, Friendship Circle’s behavior support specialist.

Milestones program director Beth Thompson said virtual learning also deprives these students of important socializing skills.

“I want them back in school because they need to be socializing with neurotypical peers.,” she said.

The organizations said they are committed to supporting these students.

LifeTown Director Esther Kaltmann, said she will find a way to serve its students.

“We will find a way to make it work,” she said. “It pains us that our kids have been locked out of school for five months when critical skills need to be learned.”

Her husband, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, executive director of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center, which houses LifeTown Columbus, added, “We’re not going to let our kids down.”

As a result, LifeTown is providing families with two options. Students can receive education and training through “LifeTown On the Go” where staff come to their homes and work outdoors with them at a safe physical distance. They can also work in real-time with team members through virtual programming.

The same attitude holds for Friendship Circle of Cleveland and Milestones.

“We’ve tried to do as much as we can to accommodate requests for in-person activities,” Zielinski said.

For example, Friendship Circle has instituted a reservation system for families to use their playground. Families can sign up for two-hour slots and play together with proper social distancing. High school volunteers wearing masks work to ensure distancing and institute other precautions, such as appropriate screening and hand sanitizing.

Meanwhile, Milestones is providing parents with guidance on how to ensure that their children receive the services they need when schools reopen. For example, Milestones is urging parents to work with the school’s IEP plan advisers “to discuss methods in which to learn and rehearse safety strategies (e.g., proper handwashing, social distancing) and other potential areas of concern the family may have.”

Milestones is also suggesting parents of children who are medically fragile or have family members at high risk for COVID-19 complications consider homeschool or virtual learning programs. Milestones is providing parents with a list of suggested programs, such as Tree of Knowledge Learning Academy, Haugland Learning Center, and Albert Einstein Tuition-Free Online Charter, that have a history of working with children with autism.

Stephen Langel is a freelance writer from Pepper Pike.

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