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HAMC therapists, distance education programs partner to deliver services

By Staff | May 29, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Kayla Johnson (left), and Jessalyn Ostrem, physical and occupational therapists with Heart of America Medical Center, sit outdoors to explain special educational services they offer through area schools.

As students in the Pierce County area adjusted to distance learning and staying home toward the end of the school year, some needed extra help to stay on track with their learning and development.

Three local public special education agencies teamed up with Heart of America Medical Center physical and occupational therapists to make sure students retained vital skills during the transition.

Bethany Mack’s daughter, Brilee, receives occupational and physical therapy services from HAMC providers through Rugby Public Schools. Mack described the services offered by HAMC physical therapist Kayla Johnson and occupational therapist Rachel Bruner as “wonderful.”

“I would say our school system did an amazing job,” she said of the services Brilee received in cooperation with HAMC’s therapists. “Our providers went above and beyond, always reaching out to see if we needed more, or if it was going okay, or if it was too much.”

Bruner, Johnson and occupational therapist Jessalyn Ostrem work together with Lonetree Special Education Unit, which covers part of Rugby, south to Harvey, Goodrich and McClusky; Peace Garden Special Education Unit, which covers an area north to Rolette, Dunseith and St. John; and Tate Topa Tribal Special Education Unit near Fort Totten.

Mack said therapy sessions took place in Brilee’s home when she was an infant, then moved with her to her preschool at Little Flower Church in Rugby.

However, Mack said health issues had kept Brilee from attending school regularly.

Mack said, “Quarantine has been really nice for us, because it’s given us the most consistent services that we’ve had so far. We didn’t have to be there in person. We could do it by Zoom. We didn’t physically have to go to the school.”

“It was by far the best thing that happened for our family,” Mack noted. “(Brilee) doesn’t do well with stimulation. When she gets over stimulated, her blood sugars drop.”

Mack said Brilee’s health issues make fighting off infections more difficult as well.

Mack said Brilee does better in familiar surroundings, and her HAMC therapists adjusted services to fit her needs.

“Face to face sessions were not allowed due to the COVID-19 restrictions,” Johnson said.

Johnson delivered lessons to Brilee via Zoom videoconferencing software, even including Brilee’s younger brother, Anders, “who’s always around,” Mack said with a laugh.

“Kayla is really wonderful about including him,” Mack said. “She says, ‘Why don’t you do this together?’ Or, ‘Why don’t you do this and have him do this?’ So, it works out really nice and motivates Brilee to try a little bit more. She doesn’t want her little brother to show her up.”

“He’s competition, for sure,” Mack said of her son.

Ostrem said her clients, who have busy work schedules, worked with their children using YouTube videos she made for them.

“I had a few of my families I sent work packets to, and some of my parents would take a picture of a worksheet and send my a picture of how the students did,” Ostrem said, adding she used phone conferences with parents to check on the students’ progress.

Johnson said the at-home lessons gave HAMC therapists and school district staff a chance to collaborate.

“We were making a video, and Cathy Jelsing with the foundation said, ‘That’s really cool.'” Johnson recalled. “We were visiting with her when we were trying to come up with different things with students. You see a lot of things on social media about working within disciplines, and I was like, ‘How about building a birdhouse?’ A birdhouse is outdoors, and there’s that fine motor component, but then we want them to take a walk and do something outdoors, which tends to be more gross motor.”

Johnson explained gross motor therapy involves working with large muscle and joint movement, while fine motor therapy focuses on using smaller movements, such as those made with hands.

“We did a Zoom session and we could build it together and the parent would help,” Johnson said of the project. “That’s what we did with Brilee. Many of our other students we would send a video to. Jessa did an introduction video clip, and then I added in myself putting the bird house together, and then a greeting.”

“Then, we had a little yoga story,” Johnson added. “It was ‘Are You My Mother?’ with the bird, and the egg hatches, and we moved like different animals, and then we did some animal yoga activities.”

“I think what we tried to do in distance learning is to collaborate with our teachers, OT and PT, so a session really could create those opportunities for a student. There’s a tie in to academics,” Johnson said.

Mack said her daughter “adored” the project. “It was the best thing ever.”

“It was OT and PT working together. They sent us stuff in the mail. It was a little birdhouse, and they had to put the sides together. They had stickers they could decorate it with and they could hang it on a tree once it was built. So, that was kind of the OT piece, putting it together and decorating it, then for the PT portion, they had her doing animal walks and exercises like animals.”

“I think we found some things that might continue on even when we get back to face-to-face sessions,” Johnson said of the project.

Johnson and Ostrem said distance learning provided many opportunities for them to learn as professionals.

“Many parents don’t even realize what occupational therapy worked on,” Ostrem said. “So, I was able to give a better idea of the things that I do, and I was able to get a better idea of some of the things that they struggle with and I didn’t even know about in school because I spend such a short time with them. So, I think this was a positive thing I was able to get out of this.”

“I think what I’ve learned is I would like to have more of that during the school year and somehow involve families a little bit more, even when we’re one on one,” Johnson said. “It was great to connect. We needed the parents to make this happen.”

Johnson said, “Mostly, what we want to say to parents is thank you. That’s really what this project was to say thank you for supporting us during distance learning and we hope you have a great summer.”

“I think we have to hallmark that this happened,” Johnson said of the unique end to the school year. “So, maybe this birdhouse will be a memory they created that they have that’s tangible. It (says), ‘We did it! We got through it!’ And we learned something along the way!'”

Johnson and Ostrem recommended that local parents who suspect delays in their children’s development contact Superintendent Mike McNeff at Rugby Public Schools.

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