Service Units Support: ESU 13 helps to keep the Panhandle connected during pandemic

Service Units Support: ESU 13 helps to keep the Panhandle connected during pandemic

By Tyler Dahlgren

After 22 years of efforts in attracting, training and mobilizing distance learning teachers, BJ Peters woke up one morning in mid-March and, voilà!, there they were.

“I spent two decades trying to recruit distance learning teachers, and I had a thousand of them dropped into my lap all at once,” Peters says in half-jest.

Peters was hired on at ESU 13 in the late 1990s after the service unit received its initial lottery grant to start distance learning in Western Nebraska. The rest, as the self-anointed “senior citizen of the group” puts it, is history in a book. And when Peters takes the time to look back on his career as Technology Director and Distance Learning Coordinator, the last four months will go down as the most memorable chapter.

“We jumped into the deepest end of the pool right off the deck,” Peters said of serving ESU 13’s 21 school districts through the COVID-19 crisis. “It was challenging, and you’re exhausted at the end of each day, but at the same time there is some self-satisfaction taken in the fact that we are truly making a difference.”

Peters first step of action was to address the increasing response of schools needing Zoom accounts. In managing Western Nebraska’s distance learning system, Peters was already familiar with a core of passionate educators that had been practicing E-learning and remote strategies on a daily basis.

“But to take several hundred to over a thousand teachers and drop them into a remote, E-learning environment overnight, and to see the way they collectively responded, it was amazing,” Peters added. “We were teaching them Zoom and Google Meet and Google Classroom, which was foreign to some, but the common thread was that they knew they needed to keep connected with their kids, and we were able to find a way to do that.”

Peters then motions to the other ESU 13 directors in the Zoom grids next to his.

“These professionals here provided the emotional and the bone of support, while I was just trying to get them connected,” he said. “Click this button. Don’t have a dog and a TV behind you. Relieve some of the distractions. Those types of things. It was pretty incredible, and it happened awfully fast.”

It’s mid-June now, and for the first time in months, ESU 13’s core of directors, and their 180 employees, have had a chance to catch their breath.

“It’s calmer, now,” said Pam Brezenski, Director of Special Education. “But for three months it was crisis after crisis and policy change after policy change. Special education was changing daily, and we were trying to stay head of the curve in our services and our supports.”

Brezenski and the special education staff at ESU 13 were proactive from the start, developing lesson plans with their districts’ teachers a week before schools were closed. Her office became “Command Central”, and individualized plans for each of those 21 districts began to be logged on a large markerboard.

“It’s still there,” Brezenski said. “It’s a reminder to us of where we started. Along the way, we kept ourselves updated with the changing special education environment and kept adapting, every day.”

ESU 13 has 37 students that attend its two special education schools, LifeLink-NE and Meridian, too. Brezenski and the staff served hours and hours of speech language pathology and occupational therapy services to those students alone.

For Behavior/Mental Health Director Katie Carrizales, the majority of services offered by her department are direct and provided in-home, adding to the already plentiful slate of pandemic challenges. The transition to telehealth started right away, but the process wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

“We had to create all new consents and we had to train clinicians on how to use the new program,” said Carrizales. “BJ was on the phone with someone from my department every day walking through the technical parts of it.”

The next step was creating checklists for students to run down on their end to ensure confidential space among other necessities. Carrizales said her clinicians were intentional in efforts to create stability, offering sessions at the same time each week. Telehealth attendance was hit and miss through the first month, with some kids thriving and some struggling to engage in front of a screen.

Again, ESU 13 ramped up efforts to connect.

“We utilized that time to create some digital resources for families and teachers and students, and we offered office hours to school districts so they could connect with the clinicians to go over questions or concerns of their own,” Carrizales said. “We offered training for principals, too, offering up things to keep in mind in terms of that emotional component for themselves and for their students.”

Educating in the middle of a pandemic that forced schools across the country to abruptly close is, essentially, one massive professional learning community. Collaboration, especially in Western Nebraska, is imperative, and Jadie Beam, ESU 13 Professional Learning Director, knows it well.

In the first few days of life in a remote world, Beam and her staff created a one-page document in Google Forms filled with the all of the great resources being assembled and offered across The Panhandle. The document was updated every day, and each district was active in sharing best practices, resources and helpful materials.

After the first week, Beam teamed with Peters, Brezenski and Carrizales in setting up virtual teacher lounges, which were divided into grade-specific (at the elementary level) and subject-specific (at the high school level) lobbies.

“So Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, for five or six hours, we held those virtual teacher lounges,” said Beam. “Usually, we spent five to ten minutes at the beginning giving updates that could help them. It was tough. It was a hard place to be. They missed their kids. It was a sharing time and almost a therapy for those teachers.”

Two weeks of virtual lounges turned into six. During that same time, Beam and Brezenski, both adjunct instructors for the University of Wyoming, were mulling over what to do about the college credit courses and training they’d planned to offer through the spring. Instead of cancelling, they decided to offer the courses online, over Zoom. From June 1-June 18, 334 teachers attended the summer training, 178 of whom took it for college credit.

“I think we might’ve even had a better attendance by offering it over Zoom, because some of our schools two hours away didn’t have to drive to Scottsbluff for an in-person class,” Beam said.

The pandemic led to an interesting tail-end of Andrew Dick’s first year as ESU 13 Administrator. The Scottsbluff native praises his staff’s innovation and devotedness to the districts they serve.

“These four individuals’ workload multiplied tremendously,” Dick said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the work that they and their teams did.”

The rest of NPSA’s roundtable discussion can be found in Q&A format below!

Before we get deeper into this conversation, tell me a little bit more about yourselves and the career paths you travelled that led you to ESU 13.

Jadie Beam: I taught for 18 years in Gering Public Schools. I was the Special Education teacher, then Reading Coordinator, and then district Assessment and Curriculum Director before moving here. I will be going into my seventh year at ESU 13.

Pam Brezenski: I’ve been in education for 14 years. I’m a second career teacher, having been a manager in a large retail operation prior to entering teaching. I started in general education, and my passion led me to special education. We lived away from Nebraska for 21 years. My husband was in the Air Force. Then, we kind of came home, but I’m from the east side of the state. I answered an ad on Teach Nebraska, and that’s what brought me here.

Katie Carrizales: I grew up in rural Nebraska, very close to Scottsbluff. I went away for college and then to Colorado for graduate school. I received my EdS in school psychology, and it was an internship here at ESU 13 that brought me back to the area, after which I decided to go back to school again to get my doctorate. I did a clinical site internship in a local community outpatient clinic, and, after returning with my doctorate, I’ve served as the Director of Behavioral Health for two years.

Andrew Dick: I spent one year teaching in Lincoln Public Schools, two years teaching at Scottsbluff High School, and the next 13 years as a building-level administrator. I was born and raised in Scottsbluff, and I’m just wrapping up my first year as administrator of ESU 13.

BJ Peters: I’m the senior citizen of the group. IT Director for ESU 13. I’ve been here 22 years. I was hired back in the late 1990s, when they initially got their first lottery grant to start distance learning in Western Nebraska.

Q: Regarding assessment and meeting schools where they are, how quickly were you in communication and on the phones with all of your districts? And is gaging and assessing needs of those districts more difficult considering what a vast surface area your service unit covers?

BJ Peters: Our school buildings were very fortunate to have huge bandwidths in their buildings. And it’s interesting, we’ve surveyed our schools and asked them ‘How many of your kids were off the grid?’, and the answer to that survey was about 10-15 percent, which might not seem like a ton. But, it’s still 10-15 percent of kids who aren’t connected. I had several that said this was their home internet (pointing to his cell phone), that mom and dad’s cell phone with a hot spot was what they were connecting to. That was a little concerning.

I’m glad we had a number of our districts step up and even providers themselves step up to provide free internet and find ways to serve those students with a connection, but there are still some places our in the Sandhills that are just not going to have internet. And that’s where I think a number of our districts realized that we may have to just make phone calls. We may have to mail them hard copy materials to keep them engaged.

Initially, the kids were engaged, but then the newness wore off and after about a month, it wasn’t so fun to be on Zoom three or four hours each day anymore. We have a generation of kids that are passive learners. We’ve trained them to sit in a seat and we’ll spoon-feed you the information. We turned that around. They were now in charge of their own learning, and, as educators, we need to help them adapt to that new environment.

Jadie Beam: At ESU 13, we’ve always hung our hat on relationships. We truly do have strong relationships with all 21 of our districts. Our mission has always been to be their first call when they need something. They all have unique needs, and we work to meet them where they’re at. I think it really showed us that our schools believe in us during this time. And it started with Andrew having the weekly meetings with the superintendents. That one line of communication really relayed to us as departments what districts needed, versus us bombarding them. I just felt comfortable that they believe in us and what we were doing.

Q: Once the assessing of where each district was at was completed, how did ESU 13 approach curriculum advancement and taking that first step towards the 2019-20 school year’s finish line, which was only two months away.

Jadie Beam: It was an easier transition for middle schools and high schools, because they had used Google Classroom and the kids were used to the online format, at least somewhat. Really, that was flawless for the districts who were already utilizing that. Our biggest hang-up was on grades and how they were going to get the credits they needed to graduate. Was it going to be pass/fail? That’s where Pam’s people came in to decide.

Elementary was probably our biggest challenge for curriculum. It’s really hard to teach twenty first-graders over Zoom. We offered a lot more guidance and help at the elementary level. We found websites and they did a lot of packet-learning, where they sent materials home. There were some growing pains. In our CTE areas, in classes like chorus and woods and shop, it was difficult. It is really hard to take cooking into the students’ homes.

Pam Brezenski: So within LifeLink and Meridian, our local schools, they actually did something very unique. They had music class online. The music teacher had them grab kitchen tools, it was beautiful to watch, and they would join in. We have 22 students who attend that school and about 10-15 of them would join in. The teacher focused on rhythm and adapted her curriculum to what they had in their homes.

A lot of our speech pathologists and our occupational therapists did the exact same thing. They would have the students gather things around their homes to do the lessons with. That was something positive that came out of this regarding curriculum and something I think they’ll continue with. Many special education teachers expressed that this time forced them to look at technology and to find apps that are integrative. It forced them to look outside of the paper curriculum that they’ve used for so long.

That was something that we didn’t even realize would come out of it. Even better, parents were helping with a lot of those services. So, for once, they got to see how their child was receiving speech language pathology. They got to see how the occupational therapist worked with their child. Almost 90 percent of the special educators said that the parent connection that came out of curriculum implementation during this was a huge benefit that they never thought would arise.

Q: Katie, I wanted to ask you about mental health and the challenges that came forward after students were sent home in mid-March, especially the kids with few constants in their life. For the kids who depend on school for stability, and food, and other necessities that they may struggle to get outside of 8-3 every day. What were some of the challenges from a mental health standpoint?

Katie Carrizales: That’s a big question, and it depends on who you’re sending them home to. I think there’s kids where parents were able to rally around them and create a really great experience during this time. If you think about it, we’ve all gotten to spend so much more time with our kids than we ever would have before. And, so, if we were in a place where the adults were healthy and able to wrap their kids in that support, I think it could have been a really wonderful experience.

For other kids, that’s just not the case, not the reality, and those are the ones we really worry about. Who’s at home? Is it safe at home? Are their needs being met at home? What’s really hard is that we just don’t know yet. That’s obviously a big fear, that when school begins again we’re going to see the repercussions of that. Some of the things we’ve encouraged parents to do across the board is to help create a sense of safety for our kids, and that comes down to consistency, predictability and follow-through. How can we incorporate that into the home setting regardless of who’s in that home setting?

The other thing that I think is really key and plays into this question is how the adult is functioning themselves. Not just how is the relationships with their child, but are they themselves anxious or worried or scared? Because that is absorbed by the kids. Even if we’re doing our best to create an environment that’s ideal if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, that’s going to negatively impact our kids as well.

Q: What does day to day life at ESU 13 look like now? What’s it like providing distance learning support, from a distance?

Jadie Beam: I think for me, I've used some of this time for my own professional development that I maybe haven't had time in past years. There's been a lot virtual trainings that we would've had to drive to, or, for the national conferences, fly to, so I've really tapped into a lot of the professional learning for myself. I think another thing that I want to talk about that we didn't talk about before is we often see ESU as being the vehicle to our school districts, but I think our director team really did a good job of taking care of our own.

We have 180 employees here at ESU and I don't think we talk about that enough. As directors we met weekly with our teams to make sure our own people were okay. It's important that our districts were taken care of, but I think it's just as important to know that we took care of our own. I'm the internal PR person for our unit, and it was hard, but we wanted to make sure we were all okay too.

It's really the relationship with my own team. I've had to take some time to know who I can push and who I can't push and who needs something different, but I think we needed to take care of our own as much as we needed to care of our districts.

Katie Carrizales: I agree completely with Jadie. I think we stepped up to help districts, but it was so important to keep people within our departments healthy. And what I found with the clinicians, it's a rare experience for a clinician to be experiencing the same trauma at the same time as the person that they're treating. That in itself created some complexity to the feelings that everybody was having, and so we had to work really hard to be intentional about not scheduling back to back with Zoom sessions all day and calling each other and going for a walk break, things like that.

Like Pam said, it's nice right now because in the summer time we're feeling a lot less of that, but initially we were on that learning curb of really having to pace ourselves.

Q: I think complex is a really good word to encapsulate the whole last three months, and it's probably going to be a while before you can all take a deep breath and look around and have things back to normal. But right now, three months after all your districts in your service area just abruptly closed their doors, what are you most proud of?

Andrew Dick: I'll start out, and I would say that three things come to mind. The first thing, we all have a sense of pride of an area where we grow up, the area that we know best. So the first thing I'm very proud of is that the manner in which our school districts, school leaders, and superintendents collaborated, came to consensus so quickly and made decisions with the wellbeing of students at the center of those decisions. I truly believe our school districts benefited from that. Because of that collaboration, that consensus building, that we were truly stronger together.

The second thing I would say along those lines is the collaboration that took place amongst school districts that the ESU staff helped facilitate, of sharing ideas, sharing plans, sharing ways that we would deliver that education, that highlighted one school district’s creativity, that we could provide the best possible education given the circumstances for our schools. So there was a tremendous amount of resource knowledge sharing in that regard.

And then the third thing I would say is just my own pride of the team that I'm fortunate to work with every day here at ESU 13. The directors and the staff with whom they supervise, and how they all demonstrated flexibility, creativity. I didn't hear complaining, or "What are we going to do now? The sky is falling". More or less, it was "How can we turn this into another opportunity for us to provide exemplary services and support to our school districts?".

BJ Peters: Andrew's exactly right. Watching how our schools came together makes you proud. The sharing of ideas, school districts are very independent. They're their own little kingdoms, to be honest, but I mean we had small schools sharing ideas to the big schools and vice-versa.

I think that was one of the key things that made the process maybe go a little bit smoother for us here at ESU 13, was the fact that we had 21 districts all moving down the right path. It helped us, this group here, it helped us do our jobs better because they were all on it. We weren't trying to create 21 different plans out there.

Jadie Beam: Two words really come to mind. The first thing I'm really proud of districts on is balance. I really felt they did a nice job of balancing the curriculum and the mental health of what can people handle and what they cannot. And the second was flexibility.  So balance and flexibility, I really saw that from districts.

And also giving input and feedback from their students and their parents, and their staff. They really listened when they said it was too much, and they backed off and they tried to make it work. So those are the two words that come to mind for me, and I'm just proud of them.

Pam Brezenski: The key word for me was the adaptability of every special education professional and para across ESU 13. I don't know that we had anybody complaining. They all just dug in and they did exactly what they needed to do to make it happen. And it wasn't easy in our world, because we were talking about students and situations where it's even difficult to provide that instruction one on one in that physical setting. They did some amazingly creative things across this area to make education happen.

Even our own staff, our staff within the schools, I don't know if there was a special educator who ever questioned what they were going to do and I think a lot of that is the love of the students, and that's the piece that really showed to me is that they miss their students and they care so deeply for them.

Katie Carrizales: The amount of kindness and empathy that just came out from everyone everywhere through this process was amazing. There's more connection, or there became more connection, between schools and community. There were kids, when they saw each other on Zoom, they would just light up. I just felt like the kindness was enhanced over this time among everybody.