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EMSB Student Services pivot, innovate, to answer pandemic needs

Montreal - Friday, May 20, 2022

by Wendy Singer

The past two years have been challenging for everyone, with the pandemic forcing change that had not been remotely imagined or anticipated. In March 2020, the Student Services department (SSD) at the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) sprang into action, rallying to support students, families and staff in any way they could. 

Inspirations met with the department’s director Julie René de Cotret, assistant directors Gail Callender and Sabrina Petrocco, and coordinator Patrizia Sansone to learn about the innovative work of their team during the pandemic. 

SSD professionals cater to all youth sector students aged 4 to 21, in particular students who are considered at risk and who may or may not have a special needs diagnosis such as autism. 

As the needs of the EMSB’s student body evolve over time, the SSD has responded on a global level with impactful interventions. “Many students fall within some category of having a special need that is more than just academic,” said Petrocco. “It could be a student struggling with mental or physical health or gender identity, for example. The umbrella of issues has grown exponentially in the last few years.” 

The SSD is mandated to promote the continuous progress of students by helping them overcome the difficulties they meet, seeing to their psychological and physical well-being and developing their sense of responsibility, autonomy, initiative and feeling of belonging in their school and community. The department supports the special education services and contributes to the management of complementary services in social affairs, regular and outreach schools by providing psychological, health, social, guidance, drug education and speech and language services. It acts as a liaison between the Board and the hospitals, community and social services centres, manages the work of psychologists, speech and language therapists, guidance counsellors, occupational therapists, spiritual community animators, childcare workers, special education consultants, oral interpreters, nurses, social workers and resource people specializing in drug use. 

The pandemic response 

In December 2019, René de Cotret became director of the SSD. Five months later she was leading her team of professionals through unprecedented circumstances. “The unknown made it difficult, with things changing from morning to night,” she said. 

She described the stress level of students, families and staff as very high during this time. “Unfortunately, we have seen more students from Kindergarten to high school who are stressed.” Callender remarked that students who started Kindergarten or Grade 1 in 2020 have yet to experience a normal classroom environment. 

The SSD was there to help students adapt to their new school environment, especially those with difficulties adhering to the changing mandates. 

The shift to the online classroom presented a steep learning curve. With the collaboration of their colleagues in the Information Technology department, the SSD was able to help students, families, teachers and staff adjust to virtual learning at home. “We now know a lot about online learning, and we’re much more comfortable with it now than we were two years ago,” said Petrocco. 

Many online resources that were created out of necessity during the pandemic proved to be so effective that they will continue to be used. One such resource was developed by a behavioural technician who was concerned that her students with behavioural challenges would not receive the in-person support they needed while learning at home. She developed a virtual world where, with one click, a student could enter a meditation session, practice a brain activity or speak with her directly. This resource has been shared amongst professionals. 

René de Cotret, Sansone, Petrocco and Callender miss brainstorming and troubleshooting in person with their team of professionals and look forward to the time when they can safely meet again. They use virtual conferencing as much as possible to maintain and drive the teamwork that they pride the department on. “We all understand that it’s not easy being on the front lines, and we appreciate what our team of professionals are doing for the students. I don’t have enough words to tell them how much I appreciate their work,” said René de Cotret. 

“The pandemic response brought out a certain level of flexibility and patience in people even though at times there was impatience. The level of activity and creativity of our professionals, especially at the beginning when things were unknown, was incredible, and it continues to this day,” said Sansone. “We are in awe of their resilience.” 

For information about the many SSD points of service, visit www.emsb.qc.ca/emsb/services/special-needs.