Forging Ahead: Birch Family Services COVID-19 Update
With New York City in Phase 4 of its reopening strategy and public schools set to reopen, we would like to take this opportunity to update the Birch Family Services community on how we are continuing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and how we are moving forward as an organization dedicated to empowering individuals with autism and developmental disabilities to lead fulfilling lives.
Nearly 6 months into the pandemic, Birch Family Services Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) continue to work around the clock to provide safety and support for 126 individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities living in our residences. During this difficult period, we have had relatively few positive diagnoses among our staff and the people we support have remained engaged and in good health. However, we are sad to report that 3 people living in our residences have passed away due to the virus.
From the beginning, our team has been working with partners to ensure adequate resources such as personal protective equipment (PPE) — masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, etc. — for our individuals and staff are on hand. In addition, we continue to recruit for critical positions such DSPs, nurses, and other residential staff and have streamlined our on-boarding processes for interested and qualified candidates.
After a long period of separation, family members who wish to visit a loved one in a Birch residence may now do so provided they follow strict requirements set forth by OPWDD and the state Department of Health.
We are also in the planning stages of opening our day habilitation programs in the coming weeks. This is an opportunity for us to assist those individuals living at home with family members to receive in-person habilitation services. We are implementing a similar strategy for those in our residences.
Since March, most members of our New Frontier program, which provides employment and social development for people with autism and developmental disabilities, have begun working remotely or have been furloughed or laid off. In the interest of safety, we have continued to pause all face-to-face and group employment training and social gatherings related to the program. However, New Frontier staff continue to support current members to provide counseling and work through subject material. In addition, staff remain in regular contact with the program members, their families, and their support networks to provide consistent updates and encouragement. Last month, participants took part in a virtual job interview workshop presented by our corporate partner, Virtu Financial. Additionally, New Frontier has continued to engage participants in virtual workshops that address the changing needs of young adults with autism, including yoga and mindfulness, nutrition, wellness, and Social Leisure Club workshops. Having recently received new funding, the program plans further workshops through 2021.
Our Education department has always emphasized that parents are partners in the educational development of their children. Never has it been so true as during this period. While we have always provided support and training to our families, additional assistance has been needed not only in the educational area but in emotional and technical supports so that they are better able to manage the needs of their children at home. Since our schools closed in March and we began implementation of our remote learning strategy, school staff have provided families with regular parent support sessions. In addition, Birch nurses and school psychologists continue to conduct calls with families in order to check-in on health and wellness and to support them with challenges they may be having with their children. The impact of COVID-19 on our educational services has been significant, but we have been able to quickly respond to the needs of our community and provide supports to staff, students, and families via remote platforms and training.
While quarantine and virtual learning posed its challenges, students from all of our preschool and school-age programs either moved up or graduated. Indeed, the Class of 2020 from our Phyllis L. Susser School for Exceptional Children completed the school year stronger and ready to take on the world, as well as the transition into adulthood. With help from their dedicated teachers and families, they’ve earned this accomplishment through their hard work and focus. We are extremely proud of all our graduates.
At Birch Family Services, our paramount concern is ensuring the health and safety of all our students, staff, and families as we reopen our schools. With this in mind, we have created a comprehensive plan for a hybrid/blended schedule that includes in-person and remote instruction. This plan was developed as a result of the engagement of all school stakeholders, including executive leadership, school administrators, staff, family members, advocacy groups; and guidance from city and state health and education departments as well as the United States Centers for Disease Control. As such, we are following all guidance and requirements issued by these agencies and will make revisions as necessary as new guidance is provided.