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Yale's Cedarhurst School Addresses Special Education Needs During COVID-19 Pandemic

March 29, 2021

On Prospect Street in Hamden, just north of Yale's campus, is a 100-year-old historic home that houses Cedarhurst School. Founded 60 years ago by the Department of Psychiatry, this junior and senior high school provides educational and mental health services to adolescents and young adults in need of special education. Students are referred by their home school districts from throughout Connecticut.

In early March 2020, leaders of Cedarhurst anticipated likely closure of their school building as the COVID-19 pandemic grew. The teachers and staff launched an intensive effort to create a comprehensive distance learning program, modifying curricula and addressing internet connectivity and technology resources for students.

A Virtual Spring 2020 Semester

School was dismissed from the building early on March 12, 2020, after several teachers and students reported feeling ill. Virtual classrooms went live the following morning. Using Zoom and Google Classroom, teachers and aides continued to work with their students in groups and individually in breakout rooms.

The school’s leaders recognized that their already-vulnerable students needed to keep their connection with fellow classmates and teachers to maintain some sense of normalcy, but also acknowledged that keeping students engaged in a virtual classroom would be a challenge.

Betsy Donovan, Director of Cedarhurst School, said teachers created remote classrooms from their own homes, converting their content into lessons that could be given virtually, and incorporating activities to draw students in and keep them connected.

Associate Director Kitty Clemens said: “With the first phone call to a parent, it was clear that the earth had just shifted under our families, and we would need to coach them on parenting during a pandemic, something that we were only just figuring out ourselves.” Cedarhurst social workers also gave parents advice on how to create a conducive learning environment at home and maintain a routine for their children.

Once remote learning was underway, if a student was not present at the beginning of a class, teachers would text a social worker who would reach out immediately to re-engage the student.

The Cedarhurst transition to remote learning for special education was so swift and effective that it was viewed as a model. The Connecticut State Department of Education asked to use the Cedarhurst program descriptions and policies to inform development of state guidelines on special education during the pandemic and to share with other special education schools.

Returning to Campus in Fall 2020

As COVID-19 cases continued to decrease over the summer, and state government leaders advocated for as much in-person learning as possible, Cedarhurst teachers and staff began preparations to return students to the building last fall for the 2020-21 school year.

With support from many departments within Yale, and working with input from teachers, students’ families and the state Department of Education, the Cedarhurst administration developed a plan to open with a hybrid learning model, with half the students in the building each day. Cedarhurst implemented every mitigation strategy recommended to schools by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with weekly asymptomatic screening of students and staff at the school site.

To facilitate teaching in a hybrid model, classrooms were fitted with large screen televisions, wide angle web cams and microphones so that students at home could video conference via Zoom into the actual classroom with their peers in the building. Teachers developed lessons that could simultaneously serve both students in person and at home.

“The first few weeks after returning to school last fall were surreal and exhausting as everyone adjusted to the new protocols. The students have embraced the safety precautions, and parents have really partnered with us, communicating regularly about any health concerns,” said Donovan.

During the pandemic, the retention of students at Cedarhurst and in class has been high and there have been no cases of in-school COVID transmission. Preparations are underway for summer school and a fall semester with increased in-person instruction.

Michael Hoge, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Superintendent of Cedarhurst School, credited the successful transition to distance and hybrid learning to the leadership provided by Donovan and Clemens, the commitment and creativity of the teachers and staff, the resilience of the students and their parents, and the dozens of Yale employees from departments throughout the university that offered technical expertise and support.

As vaccines continue to roll out, Clemens said “there is a feeling of hope and a sense among staff and students of a light at the end of this tunnel.”

For more information about the Cedarhurst School and its programs visit the school’s website or contact Donovan at betsy.donovan@yale.edu.

Submitted by Jordan Sisson on March 29, 2021