Columbus academy for autistic students reopens with safety measures in place

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COLUMBUS (WCMH) — An education and therapy center for children with autism is back open in Columbus after nearly three months of being unable to see kids in person.​

Bridgeway Academy is celebrating its 15th year of operation in 2020, or at least it would have been if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic.​

Instead of celebrations, the academy had to shut down operations like other K-12 schools back in March. Since then, they have been trying to teach kids online using technology, but it isn’t the same.​

Additionally, some children with autism find it difficult when their routine is disrupted as drastically as the response to the pandemic necessitated. ​

“Really, for our kids to be able to learn, they need to be to be near their people and be able to see their facial expression, not just through technology,” said Abby David, a co-founder and executive director of the school. “When you’re at home, a parent may not have those tools in their tool kit to be able to make those changes right on the spot, also to get them to attend, and to sit, while they’re also trying, maybe, to work at home. It’s not possible for many, many of our students.”

That has led to a tough three months for some families, and an anxious time for staff at the school. All of that is over now as the school has been able to open back up for summer camp programing.​

Following state and federal guidelines, Bridgeway Academy is trying to balance safety with meeting the needs of the students.​

“You know, our kids, in some sense, have lost three months, and so, we have always talked about during the summer how we also do academic review, and this summer, we’re gonna put a little bit more in there, doing some more academics, to really get them caught back up,” said David.​

Academy co-founder Erin Nealy said safety is the highest priority right now.​

“The hardest thing is not being able to hug each other and hug our students the way we typically would, and so we’re going to continue to adapt and modify our interactions to keep everyone safe,” said Nealy.​

Students reported to the summer program for the first time Tuesday, each getting their temperature taken in the car before being allowed into the school. Once inside, they were placed into small groups which will not have contact with each other to minimize spread of illness should anything get past the daily checks.​

Those daily checks include taking the temperature of students and staff multiple times daily. Additionally, a heavy emphasis on cleaning surfaces has been set.​

“We are making sure we are giving each of our students enough space in the classroom, but we still have to have some of that closeness to them to make sure that they are safe within their space,” said David. ​

With all of the new rules in place, some things they normally would have offered are being set aside this summer, and kids are noticing some of their favorite activities are missing.​

“One of our students, the first thing he said when he came in this morning is, ‘Where’s the water slide?’ because he remembered in past years we have a giant water slide that we put out,” said Nealy. “That’s something that’s going to be a little challenging for some of our kids to realize, that that won’t be something that we’ll be able to use this year, but we’ll have other ways to have fun.”​

Some other ways include using their campus grounds and outdoor spaces to their advantage. Several areas have been cordoned off to create separation if need be.​

“We’ve definitely had to change and make some modifications about what our normal summer camp program would have looked like,” said David.​

Right now, staff at the school is excited to welcome their students back and have been looking forward to being around them and helping them for weeks. But moving forward, the school is trying to keep a level head about what could happen if there is a second wave of illness that forces a regression and return to a more limited amount of personal interactions.

“It’s trying to just be realistic with our plans, be forward-thinking so that we’re prepared for that, and not get too comfortable with the happiness that we’re feeling today,” said Nealy. “It’s a really challenging time because you want to be hopeful, you want to be able to live in the moment and be excited for what’s happening now with reopening, but we do have to be planful and considering what are the strategies that we’re going to put into place should we have to close again and go back to a virtual, or a combination of virtual and in-person learning.”​

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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