LEE — The transition to remote learning hasn’t been without its challenges for educational institutions throughout the commonwealth.
But for some, the forced technological shift in education has proven beneficial. In fact, some students from College Internship Program (CIP) Berkshire, a Lee-based organization focused on helping young adults with Asperger’s and other learning differences define the path to their futures, have been more engaged than they were in traditional settings, according to Berkshire Program Director Jenna Knauss.
“Some are now shining stars,” said Knauss, who spoke of one student who was awarded for participating in 100 percent of their scheduled programming. “One student is now speaking up more and become a leader through the virtual program.”
Overall, students are showing a 90 percent participation rate, she added.
Still with the majority of programming being designed as one-on-one or in hands-on groups, change was inevitable for CIP Berkshire. Fortunately, the organization had recently shifted its phone systems to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and adopted Zoom video conferencing software, said Daniel McManmon, president of CIP.
“Largely everything we do is in person; we’ve never had an online component of CIP,” said McManmon.
Shortly after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and news started to escalate at local colleges like Berkshire Community College, CIP Berkshire started working on plans for students’ transition home, he said. In addition to CIP Berkshire, CIP has four different center locations it oversees with 175 students and 140 staff. McManmon says that there have been no furloughs or layoffs, and that the organization has issued a stipend for staff having to use their personal internet.
Like the rest of the commonwealth and beyond, CIP Berkshire has been utilizing Zoom to maintain its operations. One of the initial speed bumps the organization had to overcome were setting up teletherapy sessions.
Psychology and licensing boards do not typically allow practitioners to see a client in another state even through a Zoom platform, said Knauss. As a result of the pandemic, states mobilized quickly to loosen restrictions, so that those that needed those mental health services could maintain those services, she said.
Knauss also noted that students are working with tools their therapists had helped develop with them at CIP Berkshire, reviewing behavior support plans and have also utilized apps to monitor emotion. Clinicians are also working to support the students’ family during this time, she added.
For those times when students may be struggling more, there are virtual drop-in sessions available for students to do an activity like touring a museum, watching a movie with someone or even playing Cards Against Humanity.
One challenge that students have worked on with staff was managing life skills virtually, said Knauss. While tasks like menu planning and cooking sessions might not be a challenge, working around that task if say a family member is in the kitchen at the same time or checking to see if all of the ingredients are there prior to cooking may be, she added.
“Because our students don’t generalize well, context is everything,” she said.
Many students, however, seem to have their coach from CIP Berkshire present when they prop up an iPad in the kitchen to watch them cook, said Knauss.
In working with families, education has shifted more toward project-based learning as with maintaining focus for long periods of time can be a struggle for students on the autism spectrum and other diagnoses.
While the world may have much uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus as the organization’s summer production has been put on hold and the annual convocation ceremony has been pushed back to the end of July — for now — CIP continues to recognize Autism Awareness Month, which happens every April.
This year, CIP Berkshire students created “think positive” rocks and held signs up at their computers to describe themselves. Others have even created videos speaking about what autism means to them.
“Autism Awareness Month isn’t going to get the spotlight it needs based on the current circumstances of the world, but what is interesting and important to note is when has there ever been a time when the whole world has been in the same boat at the same time. It’s important to note that we really aren’t so different,” said McManmon.
*This story has been updated to clarify that CIP has five centers total and correct the spelling of Berkshire Program Director Jenna Knauss.