Every day, occupational therapists (OTs) get their hands dirty as they work with students who struggle with fine motor and sensory skills.
OTs guide children’s hands as they learn how to correctly grip a pencil and draw letters, and they help children use various manipulatives, like Play-Doh and blocks, to build strength. They set up Sensory Rooms, where children can bounce on balls and jump on trampolines to release energy so that they can focus on learning. Sometimes, when children are upset, the OTs hold them to calm them down.
But since last spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, most occupational therapists have been unable to touch and guide students in person—and have had to completely reinvent how they work. The adaptations have been especially challenging because many children with special needs depend heavily on parent/caregiver oversight to help them with tech tools or even to sit still to focus during remote education.
“I’m incredibly proud of myself and my team here, because we weren’t even sure how to get kiddos to the screen at first. I really didn’t know much about technology when we went to remote learning in March. We’ve come so far,” said Monica Keyser, an occupational therapist in San Ramon Valley Unified School District in California.
OTs like Keyser say they’ve found new apps and tech tools or modified their traditional methods for use in virtual and in-person sessions. All said that they are most successful when a parent is available during the day to assist their child, but that equity issues tied to families’ resources can create barriers to that engagement. While exhausting, these experiences have helped therapists evolve their work, which will benefit kids long after the vaccine arrives.
“My learning curve this year has been a mountain. It has been huge,” said Linda Kinkade, an occupational therapist for the Warrick County Schools in Indiana. “I figured out that I’m not too old to still learn, which is kind of a weird blessing in disguise.”