Image: HMS School 1

The HMS School has been teaching students with cerebral palsy and other disabilities since 1882 – and few events in its more than 138-year history have been more harrowing than the past year’s coronavirus pandemic. But with wide-access to the vaccine on the horizon – and some help from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia at the ready – HMS is finally slated to begin reopening its doors.  

HMS President Tom Quinn said that the school will partially reopen its building to in-person learning on April 8. The HMS school, located at 44th and Baltimore, will be ready to welcome half of its 52 students in the building on Mondays and Tuesday, and the other half on Thursday and Friday – although around a dozen families have opted to keep their children learning virtually fulltime. Wednesdays, meanwhile, will be reserved for deep cleaning.On the three weekdays students are not in the building, they will be learning virtually.

Quinn said that the school has a tentative goal to reopen in-person learning for five days a week by the end of June, during the summer session that HMS offers. 

“For us, with our kids being so specialized medically, what we had to basically do to make this hybrid happen, is we had to reschedule all of the 52 kids that are with us to basically get them a new schedule,”Quinn said. “And we can have that running by the first week in April.” 

The reopening of the school is the product of expanded access to COVID-19 vaccines. HMS teachers began receiving vaccinations towards the end of January.Quinn said that not all of the staff had been vaccinated as of mid-March, but that all should receive at least one shot of a vaccine by the April reopening date. This level of protection is crucial for HMS students, who all have cerebral palsy or another neurological disability, and thus require close contact, and cannot all wear masks.

Quinn said that HMS staff’s access to the vaccine was facilitated by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“We really owe a huge debt of gratitude to CHOP specifically,”Quinn said.“[CHOP] reached out to us, understanding the work that they do, they recognized that our staff was needing 1a status because there is no social distancing working with our kids, we got to be right there.” 

Quinn added that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to expand vaccine eligibility to teachers and staff at approved private schools has helped inoculate HMS staff.

“I was able to share with staff [in March] that [the state] did recognize that approved-private -school staff did need that same access that all teachers were getting,” Quinn said. “There’s been lots of glitches with that, as far as everybody’s experienced that, and some of our staff have been able to process that, get on, and get an appointment quickly, and others have struggled just to kind of navigate through that, but we’re in a much better place access place than we were three weeks ago.”   

HMS has also instituted a strong testing regimen with the aid of CHOP. Certified staff is administering regular, surveillance COVID-19 tests toteachersand students, meaning they are testing asymptomatic individuals to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. The system was first implemented earlier this year, allowing HMS to bring in six to 10 students into the building per day for physical and occupational therapy and treatment sessions with the school’s staff beginning in late January. As of mid-March, the school was testing around 20 staff members and eight students per day as part of this effort.

Image: HMS School 2

Tom Quinn, HMS School President showing off HMS t-shirt.

“CHOP’s been huge with that, with having rapid testing available for staff and for students,” Quinn said. “CHOP’s been our saving grace, with really everything, they’ve just been remarkable in getting us access to testing, and then that grew into also each conversation I’ve had with somebody from CHOP I kept asking about the vaccine, and finally somebody reached out to us, and they’ve been a huge help to us.”

CHOP has taken an important role in leading area schools through the pandemic. The Policy Lab, a research institute at CHOP, has been publishing research about the pandemic, and is distributing tests to schools via a program called Project ACE-IT. Maggie Eisen, the Project ACE-IT managing project lead, said that CHOP had worked with county health departments and school districts to supply coronavirus tests to schools throughout the Southeastern Pennsylvania region. The project also trains school staff to administer COVID-19 tests. Eisen said that she was proud of the project and CHOP for helping set up more than 450 testing sites across Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties, and Philadelphia.

“We sort of had this snowball effect, where we started [working] with the core public health and education leaders, and they’ve been able to galvanize their partners in the counties,” Eisen said. “It’s boggles my mind that we’ve scaled to that level, but it’s been quite a whirlwind.”

Eisen added that HMS was particularly able to make use of help from CHOP and Project ACE-IT.

“[HMS staff] are such professionals and experts in their [student] population, it really felt as though all they needed was the test inventory and the basic training and they could take it from there,” Eisen said. “Any sort of additional measures that need to be taken are taken at the local level by the HMS nurses and I’m sure with support of the parents.”

These reopening efforts are just the latest part of how HMS has supported its students over the course of the pandemic. In addition to the therapy and treatment sessions, HMS has worked to implement an entire online-based curriculum for students access to the internet and computers. These computers had to be purchased with specialized interfaces, so the students, many of whom have limited motor skills, can participate.

HMS has also hosted a variety of virtual “community-based” events, including virtual Friday assemblies and games, music therapy, and a virtual prom.

“A big part of our mission for our kids is to give them the school experience that the kids who don’t have their challenges have, so the community-based things are really fundamental to what we do,” Quinn said. “Obviously, that’s been impossible to do in the way we normally do them, so what we’ve done is we’ve maintained a very consistent virtual schedule that is about that, that is about connecting kids with families.”  

Quinn, meanwhile, has helped lead an effort to support the school financially, successfully pushing state lawmakers and local school boards to keep intact the school’s state and district funding. He and his colleagues launched an impressive private fundraising effort as well, which has helped to finance the installation of a new air-filtration system to help prevent coronavirus infection. And HMS has worked to outfit staff with personal-protection equipment.

“With PPE and with masking and with testing, and now with vaccinations, we feel like we’re in a much better place to get kids in,” Quinn said. “We’re all really striving to get up and running as best we can so we’re really looking at some level of normalcy by the fall.”

“I’d say we’re O.K., but we’re always going to be weary of [finances],” Quinn added. “We hardly feel like we have an excess of anything.”

While the year of online learning has been a struggle, Quinn said that it has also allowed HMS to explore new ways of teaching its students. He noted that the implementation of virtual teaching has actually been able to increase attendance among a student body, which due to its health conditions, have typically had a high absentee rate.

“The silver lining of all this has been what we’ve learned and been able to do virtually,” Quinn said.“We’ve had perfect attendance for many of our students through all this because accessing our programing virtually has been easier.”

Quinn also said that a virtual environment has allowed teachers to better connect and communicate with students’ families. He called the development “eye opening,” for both a students’ parents and guardians, as well as for HMS staff. 

Eisen, from Project ACE-IT at CHOP, took an optimistic tone about how COVID-era innovations could be applied in the future. She said that experiences during the pandemic could help inform future collaboration between CHOP and schools around the region.

“It depends on the schools’ appetites for doing new things,” Eisen said. “I think CHOP’s attitude has always been what can we do to make things better for kids and their families, and I would always be open to hearing from the education leaders and from the families what their ideas can be.”

Quinn echoed that optimism. Though he acknowledged that COVID-19 has placed “a great burden” on HMS families, Quinn said that the school could come out of the pandemic as an even stronger resource for students in need – especially by expanding virtual learning.

“Whenever all this is over, whatever that looks like, I’d anticipate that the virtual program is going to be a permanent part of what we do in a pretty exciting way,” Quinn said. “[Students] can really connect with us even it’s just for a therapy session or just for a check-in in a way that we were never doing before.”

“It’s the law of unintended consequences,” Quinn added. “It’s something that we never would have discovered unless necessity had forced us to figure it out over the last year.”

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