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How PBS Kids Is Making Remote Learning More Accessible to All Children in the Coronavirus Age

October 22, 2020
Source: Forbes

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on so many facets of life this year. Education has been one of the hardest hit—teachers, parents, and students alike have struggled in adjusting to virtual classrooms. It isn’t merely that homes have been transformed into de-facto classrooms; this way of remote learning has cast a spotlight on socioeconomic discrepancies like who gets access to computers and a speedy, reliable internet connection, and who doesn’t. It’s a lesson for everyone that remote learning isn’t even remotely easy.

Along these lines, one segment of the educational population that has been impacted hardest is special education. Special education is what the name implies: it’s special. While programs mirror state and federal standards in terms of instruction and the like, students receiving special education services often are on individualized tracks that diverge to varying degrees from the normal cadence of school. Special education is indeed a spectrum, but for the students who need the most intensive support—such as those in moderate-to-severe special day classes, for example—the work-from-home reality wrought by Covid-19 can be devastating. For many students who receive speech therapy, physical/occupational therapy, or other types of intervention as part of their individualized programs, no Zoom session can adequately replace the in-person dynamic that is the lifeblood of special ed. What’s more, public schools offer these services for free; to pay a third-party agency to fill in the gap during our collective prolonged shelter-in-place can be exorbitantly expensive for many families. Thus, the experience for special education students suffers dramatically if these much-needed resources are not available, whether practically and/or financially.

PBS Kids is doing what it can to help bridge the learning gap for all children, with special attention paid to those with disabilities. The network’s mission has always been to provide high-quality, accessible educational programming to children as a supplement to traditional learning.

“Our mission at PBS is to serve the American public with high-quality programming and services, using media to educate, inspire, entertain and express a diversity of perspectives,” said Sara DeWitt, Vice President of Digital at PBS Kids, in an interview with me last May.

In a new interview, DeWitt told me she and her team at PBS Kids felt they were “uniquely positioned to meet the moment” when the pandemic hit in earnest in the spring. She said when Covid-related shutdowns began in March, traffic surged in the network’s direction in numbers larger than ever before. “PBS Kids’ broadcast reach grew by 15% among kids [aged] 2-8 and streaming grew by nearly 30%, while game play increased by 40%.”

DeWitt said the network has a multitude of educational resources for children, of all abilities. Videos and the like are enhanced with accessibility-minded features such as closed-captioning and descriptive audio so that “every kid [gets] the most out of PBS Kids,” she said. These resources are available in a variety of formats, from digital via broadcast and email newsletters to printable, hands-on activities.

PBS Kids partnered with PBS stations around the country to provide at-home learning services, in conjunction with PBS’s Learning Media virtual classroom service for teachers and students. DeWitt said the service saw its user base quadruple to 4 million a month beginning in April. The network rolled out new content as well, such as read-alongs that stream on YouTube and feature notable readers such as Michelle and Barack Obama and PBS Kids favorites the Kratt Brothers. Also new was a collaboration with Fred Rogers Productions on “Agent Training Videos” from Odd Squad, which teach children how to stay healthy by social distancing and demonstrate proper hand-washing technique, as well as a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood sing-along to help children cope with their feelings stemming from the pandemic.

For parents and caregivers, PBS Kids put together a Prepping for a Very Different School Year that discusses how to best prepare their children — and themselves — for a school year like none other. The presentation featured child development experts, teachers, and other caregivers of young children.

The response to the cornucopia of content has been significant. DeWitt said traffic to the PBS Kids for Parents website spiked by over 200% in March, and the network receives several thank-you notes from parents and educators across Facebook and Twitter. “It’s clear that many families have been relying on us more than ever as they have adjusted to school and daycare closures,” DeWitt said. She added the network has been “regularly checking in” with audiences and stations to solicit feedback; the goal is to ensure PBS Kids’ resources are “as relevant and useful as they can be in this unprecedented situation.”

What PBS Kids did in The Before Times to enrich the learning experiences of children is even more important in this Covid Era, and DeWitt told me the network’s work these many months is reflective of our new reality.

“At PBS Kids, we believe all children, of all abilities, deserve to have access to educational media,” she said. “It is a part of our mission to support children’s learning, including trying our best to make sure children of varying abilities have access to and our able to use our resources.”

Special education is a special breed of beast. Virtual classrooms cannot replicate the nuances inherent to teaching students with disabilities. Nonetheless, companies like PBS Kids are trying their best to fill in the gaps such that remote learning can be as bearable and educational as it can be in this most dreadful of circumstances.

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