Physical therapy, in person, during the pandemic

Staying safe and serving students receiving physical therapy supports in schools involves being flexible about when, where and how.

Finding time to offer physical therapy to students with disabilities on a hybrid learning schedule has been a balancing act for Ashlee McLeod, a physical therapist at Florence (S.C.) 1 Schools. One week, students are in school two days of the week and remote learning three days of the week, and the following week, the schedule is swapped.

“If a student is on the two-day schedule and needs five services, we try to find time on those two days to fit them in,” McLeod says, adding that virtual services also continue to be offered. “We are rolling with the punches and doing what we can do to make sure our students are safe and receiving strengthening and coordination activities to participate in their education.”

Consider some of the practices McLeod and her colleagues have adopted to stay safe and serve students as the pandemic continues.

– Determine whether in-person or remote services are appropriate.

If you have options to provide a student in-person or remote therapy, work with the student and parents to determine what would be more appropriate in light of the complexity of the student’s needs and susceptibility to illness, McLeod says. For example, if a parent struggles to follow directions during a videoconference for facilitating her child walking using a gait trainer, the student may benefit more from in-person therapy. “It’s hard to tell the parent where to hold the student through a computer,” she says.

– Offer an alternative to in-person therapy during school hours.

McLeod’s team is offering a PT clinic after school hours two days a week for students who may choose to learn remotely but need in-person sessions. Students have the option of coming from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays. Parents are not allowed into the school, so students are walked in and out by staff in personal protective equipment. No more than two students are in the room at a time, wearing masks, and staying more than 6 feet apart.

– Rethink where and when in-school services get delivered.

Recognize that you may have to change where and when you deliver services in school buildings to students because of social distancing limitations, McLeod says. For example, you may not be able to pull a student out into the hallway if others are transitioning between classes. But students should not be pulled out of their core academic subjects. “Finding time to see students is tricky,” she says. Allow time for transporting students back and forth and wiping down mats and other equipment between students. Assign items that are more difficult to clean, such as activity chairs, to specific students.

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– Offer extra equipment.

For students taking part in a hybrid model, consider sending home equipment to supplement what they have at home. For example, a student may have a gait trainer at home, but not an activity chair. The student may need the stability of the activity chair to better focus on learning at the computer at home. Just make sure educators to communicate with parents about the fit and maintenance of the equipment.

– Ensure teachers understand students’ needs.

Teachers should know how they can help students in light of social distancing and cross-contamination concerns, McLeod says. For example, a teacher may not know what to do if a student uses a walker but can’t carry a lunch tray at the same time as the walker.

Also encourage teachers to help students help themselves, McLeod says. For instance, a teacher can learn to cue a student walking on his toes to come down and use his heels if he needs prompting to walk properly.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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