Enduring the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rough ride for many people and professions.
According to Battle Ground Public Schools Speech-Language Pathologist Hillary Betzen, the “ride” for her students has been arguably even more demanding. She works with children who have a range of developmental or learning disabilities impacting their speech.
“If you think of all the difficulty adults have had with Zoom, I think that’s compounded for my kids with social disorders,” Betzen, 31, said. “That’s what they experience on a daily basis, so this has been harder for them.”
The school year just wrapped up at River HomeLink, a K-12 school that mixes home schooling and traditional school. It’s where Betzen works most often. Though she lives in Portland, she is only licensed as an SLP in Washington, and for the last several months, she’s made the trek across the river at least once a week to work with students from an office computer. Because she works with a teachers union with a caseload cap, she said the district’s SLPs each see about 45 students a year at one or two schools. However, once normal instruction ceased in March with stay-at-home orders and the closure of schools, not all students had the ability to keep up.
“A lot of parents were really overwhelmed,” said Betzen, a Missouri native. “I do have families that I was only able to do phone call chats with because they didn’t have internet. At River HomeLink, I’m in a unique position where all of my parents are already doing partial home school. We were two steps ahead.”
The future of COVID-19 and how schools will operate in the fall is still up in the air.
“It’s just so weird there’s a whole generation of kids that are going to have this giant hole and gap,” Betzen said. “I think we’re going to feel the effects for years and keep an eye on the gap in student knowledge and what that’s attributed to.”
The Columbian caught up with Betzen to learn a bit more.
What has changed since COVID-19?
When schools closed in March, there was a lot of uncertainty. Quickly we adapted to what is called teletherapy. Teletherapy is a way of seeing students online over Zoom or other platforms. We got in touch with students to figure out how we could serve them. I’m on one end of the screen; my kid is on the other end of the screen, and we’re doing a lot of similar stuff we’d be doing in the speech room, going through sounds, doing drills, reading books and those kinds of activities. I’ve been doing phone calls and emailing with the parents and teaching parents how to be their own speech pathologists. It’s been amazing since schools have closed — just the differences I’ve seen in my students. Not for all, but some I’ve seen a lot of growth from having more engagement in their home environment. Sometimes a kid comes into the speech room and it doesn’t carry out into their home environments. On the other hand, there are kids who I think really need that face-to-face and in-person contact.
COVID-19 aside, what are some of the biggest challenges you face?
Everything is very individualized from kid to kid, and all the paperwork is individualized. I feel like time is something you really need to manage well as an SLP as opposed to a classroom teacher. As a classroom teacher, I’d design a mass instruction on a topic for the class, whereas I have to tailor to individual needs. I have to be working with a preschooler on how to pronounce their “L” sounds, and then I have work with a high schooler on how to do figurative speech or poetry or something. So managing my time and my paperwork and making sure I’m qualified and competent in all of the areas that I serve kids. This was my first year that I worked with high school kids. Now with Black Lives Matter and those discussions coming up, I think those discussions of competency need to come up with people in the education world in general, and definitely within our field and special education: What does that look like for the Black kids who come in, or someone of Hispanic descent? And making sure we’re competent in all areas.
What does that mean, exactly?
Battle Ground is a very white district. Still, nationwide, Black students are more likely to be diagnosed for learning disabilities. We usually do standardized assessments. We need to look at if they are standardized to a very homogenous, white area. We need to look at the assessments we’re giving. A brief example of that is when I’m testing a kid, if they speak African American Vernacular English or have that in their history, I need to take that into consideration in diagnosing a child with a speech disorder. We don’t have as many minority students in our district: however, I do think multicultural education needs to be an important part of our curriculum and using diverse materials. So many books are 50 cent books I’ve picked up at Goodwill. I’ve got to make sure I have a diverse array of authors and illustrations that I use with the kids.
Do you have to buy your own materials?
Typically you’re given budgets to buy your materials, but I’ve purchased a lot of stuff myself. Again, I teach kindergarten through 12th grade, so I have a wide range. I have to rope them into doing activities with me. I have to find things that will work. We are given some money to spend, but it never seems to cover everything we need. That was a hard jump this year into virtual learning. There is a lot of great stuff online, but there are a lot of costs.
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