Page County Public Schools
Page County Public Schools in rural Virginia includes nine schools that serve a total of 3,200 to 3,300 students. Of those students, about 420 have been identified as having special needs, including behavioral mental health needs.
"We were apprehensive at first, but we did a lot of the training and the PresenceLearning team was great about making sure we had the right equipment. Our skepticism for using an online platform to serve students quickly turned into appreciation"
The Story Of Page County Public Schools
OVERVIEWIn planning for fall 2020, Page County knew they needed to be prepared for a fully remote school year—but they also needed to be ready for an inevitable pivot to an in-person or hybrid model. Being ready for the pivot is the new reality for schools. School continuity planning was a leading concern for the district, and this included providing professional learning to help their in-school providers deliver teletherapy. Another leading concern was the mental health crisis that was accelerating in their community and in adolescents throughout the country, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply put the district knew there would be a lot of need among vulnerable children and that their team would require extra support. Although COVID-19 had created challenges, it also had a silver lining.
“COVID-19 was kind of the saving grace for us in terms of transitioning to a virtual school psychologist—had this been any other year, it probably would have felt very different for our staff,” said Ellen Biller, director of special education services for Page County Public Schools. “But, because everyone was slammed into this virtual world that none of us had really experienced, this transition was really seamless.”
When the pandemic started in the spring of 2020, schools across the country were unprepared to serve their students with special needs remotely. For Page County, the experience opened their eyes to new ways of delivering services and an urgency for navigating school disruptions in the future.
WORD OF MOUTH MATTERSEven before the pandemic began, Page County Public Schools knew they needed more help in assessing students for school psychology services. Biller had reached out to the director of special education in neighboring Shenandoah County to learn about the district’s use of remote evaluation and therapy solutions. The director there was pleased with the support they were receiving for speech therapy through PresenceLearning and tipped Biller off to the company’s range of offerings, including in psychoeducational assessment and behavioral and mental health therapy.
Page County needed to fill a school psychologist position and, as the pandemic took hold, decided to test the waters with a live, online clinician during 2020-2021. They partnered with PresenceLearning on administering student evaluations through the PresenceLearning platform (opening up access to a range of psychoeducational assessments assessments, including the Woodcock-Johnson® IV and Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children® Fifth Edition), which freed up their own school-based team to spend more time providing direct therapy to students.
The district also turned to PresenceLearning to help educate their school-based team on best practices in delivering therapy online and ensuring the school-based providers had the right equipment to conduct sessions. Document cameras (which help the psychologist observe students as they complete their responses in the booklet) were in short supply nationwide, but PresenceLearning supplied them to the district as part of the product bundle.
“We were apprehensive at first, but we did a lot of the training and the PresenceLearning team was great about making sure we had the right equipment. Our skepticism for using an online platform to serve students quickly turned into appreciation,” said Ellen Biller, director of special education for Page County Public Schools in Virginia.
ONBOARDING A TALENTED (REMOTE) TEAM MEMBEROnboarding Brittany to the team was a smooth process that went hand-in-hand with the fact that Page County was essentially operating a fully virtual school district to commence the school year, including for special education. Everything from direct therapy with district clinicians to remote evaluations, written reports, and eligibility meetings with Brittany, the PresenceLearning clinician, were conducted in an online format. Brittany quickly became a meaningful contributor.
“She is part of the team and a regular face now. The staff has formed relationships with her and can easily call her up to discuss things and ask questions. It has been seamless.”
“Brittany calls parents to review the reports, especially if she knows there’s going to be questions. She makes sure to reach out and fosters a really good connection with parents,” said Cathy Marston, who is the special education supervisor for Page County School. Marston is in charge of Medicaid billing, eligibility meetings, compliance, and unfinished learning recovery due to COVID-19. “She’s never been afraid to reach out to us and ask a question, and this is reciprocal. We’ve called her in emergency situations for help, and she has jumped right in and never says no. It’s been wonderful.”
PLANNING FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION: PEER ADVICEWhat advice do Biller and Marston have for colleagues who may be considering remote solutions for student therapy and care? Number one, they say, is to spend time upfront, integrating teletherapists into the school community and culture. At the beginning of the school year, Biller introduced all of their school psychologists, including Brittany, to the community and families during an online forum. The school team also met with Brittany and included her in the team’s planning meeting.
“It’s important to meet ahead of time, so the school psychologist can get to know their new team members and become part of the team,” she said.
During those early meetings, they reviewed with Brittany district-specific practices and policies about managing meetings with students and parents. She gained useful background knowledge. They also set Brittany up with a district email address so that it was easier for staff to communicate with her.
“Small details make for a smoother transition,” said Marston. “We don’t feel any different than we would have felt with a live person; the district was prepared for both potential outcomes of teletherapy and it has been great.”
LOOKING AHEAD: SCHOOL POST-PANDEMICAs the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, a key goal for Page County is to understand student needs and be well-prepared for them. They are also wisely drawing upon ESSER funding. During the summer, the district is offering opportunities to address unfinished learning at each grade and age level. They will also deploy remote evaluations to students throughout the summer.
“We are seeing an unprecedented number of students who need evaluations in PreK and are grateful for help in managing the volume. We usually see some uptick during Kindergarten registration, but never like this—and so far most of the evaluations have been legitimate and absolutely necessary.”
With COVID-19 restrictions easing up, Page County has shifted from fully virtual to fully in-person learning; but that didn’t shift their reliance away from Brittany or remote services. And it didn’t change their planning for the future.
“Based upon our success so far, we may well look to PresenceLearning for helping us provide direct therapy for students, too,” said Biller.
"Our staff has had wonderful things to say and how grateful they are because it is such an odd year. They don’t feel any different about our virtual school psychologist and consider her part of the team."