READING, Pa. — For the first few weeks of the school year, Leslie Esterly struggled to connect with Levi Wilson.

With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, the Reading School District began classes this fall virtually. That meant Esterly, who teaches students with multiple disabilities at Lauer’s Park Elementary School, was introduced to the 6-year-old kindergartner online.

“He never met me before the screen,” Esterly said.

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That can make connecting with any student difficult. It made connecting with Levi — who is nonverbal due to Leigh Syndrome, a severe neurological disorder that leads to progressive loss of mental and movement abilities — nearly impossible.

Esterly said Levi wasn’t responsive to virtual lessons and wouldn’t interact with the stranger talking to him through his computer. And Esterly couldn’t provide the hands-on help she would normally give in the classroom.

“On screen, I can’t tell if he’s touching the right object or looking at the right thing,” she said. “Levi can’t manipulate a mouse, so his mom would have to be moving it for him.”

The same was true with several other students in the multiple-disabilities program.

Esterly and her fellow teachers were frustrated, wondering how to give their students what they need and, quite frankly, deserve. They decided to pitch an idea to the district administration.

Instead of trying to slog through the challenges of virtual instruction, they would put a plan into action that would let them teach their students face to face. And since the district’s schools were shut down, that meant making house calls.

Night and day

On a warm afternoon earlier this month, being pushed in his wheelchair by his nurse across the courtyard of the North Eighth Street apartment building where he lives, Levi’s face lit up.

There, sitting at a round, metal table was Esterly.

In a bubbly voice she sang him a welcome song, Levi smiling and clapping along. She set up a tray table for Levi, sliding it in close to his stomach.

Then, it was time to get to work.

Esterly walked Levi through a bevy of activities. She recorded her voice and had him push a big, green button to play it back.

She held up a laminated card with smaller laminated cards attached by Velcro that spelled out his name, directing Levi to pull each letter off and then put them back on. Esterly sang a version of the song “Bingo” as he worked, replacing the dog’s name with Levi’s.

“These are things I can’t do on the computer,” Esterly said. “I have to keep his attention and move it towards him so he sees it and can reach. This is like night and day for Levi.”

There were colored boxes — the green one seemed to be Levi’s favorite — with identically colored balls and stuffed animals inside that Levi picked out one after the other. There was even at one point a singing Mickey Mouse.

“He’s getting what all the kids need, the multiple sensory experience, the hand-over-hand instruction,” Esterly said. “He’s more engaged, he’s getting more quality time.”

And that was the whole idea.

Esterly and her fellow multiple-disabilities teachers knew their students needed in-person interaction. They knew that a solely online education wasn’t working.

So they pitched a proposal to the district’s special education department. Esterly and Heather Fisher would visit students at their homes, and Keissy Reyes would handle online instruction.

Parents would have the option of which way to proceed.

The administration agreed. So for the past month Esterly and Fisher have been on the road, meeting with students three times a week for 45 minutes a session in backyards, front porches, parks and courtyards.

Esterly visits four students, and Fisher sees five.

“It’s what they need, so why not do it?” Esterly said. “It’s what’s best for the kids.”

The students still have some virtual time, hopping online each morning. That gives them a chance to interact, at least a bit, with their classmates.

Esterly then loads up her minivan with supplies. She has two bags filled with educational items for each student. A third bag and the tray table are shared, with those items getting a thorough cleaning between stops.

On the two days a week when students don’t see her in person, a paraprofessional is available for some one-on-one help.

As she walks back to the parking lot, having sung a goodbye song to a giggling Levi, Esterly moves swiftly despite the bags and tray she’s hauling. She has another class to get to that starts in about 15 minutes. And, of course, she’ll be doing it all again the next day as well.

It’s a lot of work, but something Esterly said she is thrilled to be able to do. It’s something anyone in her position would take on, she said.

“I feel that teachers in general are willing to do whatever they can,” she said.

Arianni Maldonado, Levi’s mom, said she is grateful for what Esterly is doing for her son.

“It’s great, I love it,” she said. “Virtual school can be challenging for kids like Levi. He is learning better by having the hands-on learning with his teacher, and having her focus on him and only him.”

Above and beyond

What the teachers at Lauer’s Park are doing for their students is impressive but not shocking, district spokeswoman Kristin Boyd Edwards said.

Since the start of the pandemic, or at least when schools statewide were shuttered in mid-March, Reading teachers have been stepping up for their students.

They’ve been delivering food to families in need, dropping off special porch prizes to award students engaged in remote learning, staying online before or after work hours to assist families with Chromebook technologies, bringing in props — from puppets to household pets to dance moves — to keep students’ attention and creating funny morning announcements to make sure the day gets off to a good start, just to name a few things.

Dr. Siobhan Leavy, the district’s director of special education, said she was proud and humbled by the Lauer’s Park teacher’s idea, but not surprised.

“No, it didn’t surprise me at all,” she said. “Every day the special education teachers in Reading go above and beyond, and it often goes unnoticed. Our teachers just have this mindset of nothing is going to stop us from educating our students.”

Leavy said the idea to do at-home instruction made sense. She said learning virtually is difficult for most students, and even more so for ones with special needs.

The situation is particularly bad for students with multiple disabilities, who face a host of educational and medical challenges.

“It’s not a great option for them, it doesn’t translate for them,” she said.

Leavy said she was impressed by the creativity the Lauer’s Park teachers showed with their plan, as well as their commitment to their students during such a challenging and worrisome time.

“It’s just a really beautiful thing that came out of this,” she said. “This is awesome. I’m just so proud of them, in every way imaginable.”

Leavy said it’s unclear what will happen in the school district going forward. The school board is discussing plans on how to handle the second marking period.

That could mean some or all students returning to in-person classes soon, or it could mean at least another several weeks of virtual learning.

In the meantime, Leavy said, the Lauer’s Park teachers are going to keep going with what’s been working.

“At this moment we will continue working in the direction for as long as we can,” she said. “I imagine some coats and hats will start coming out soon, but I think the parents and students will be willing to do whatever they have to keep it going.”

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