Dr. Emily Hersh, superintendent of Mt. Pleasant Blythedale Union Free School District at Blythedale Children’s Hospital, speaks from the heart while tightening her face mask for the beginning of face-to-face, fall classes in September.  A special day that was anything but guaranteed, considering the drastically different state of the region and country just six months ago.

Back in March, New York State mandated the closure of schools, non-essential business and ambulatory programs to slow the spread of the virus.  Blythedale’s Day Hospital, outpatient and specialized feeding programs shut down, and classes were suspended at Mt. Pleasant Blythedale School (MPBS), the Hospital’s onsite school.  

Blythedale’s COVID-19 leadership team (comprised of Hospital and School leadership) quickly tapped into technology to implement distance learning and telehealth for the more than 150 patients who attend the Day Hospital program and MPBS—ensuring that not only was each child’s medical and therapeutic regimen addressed, but their educational needs were met as well.

"The seamless continuation of these vital services were critical in preserving the quality of care for this vulnerable population of children,” said Blythedale President & CEO Larry Levine.  “We prioritized and put into place these much-needed interventions without delay.”

Through the hard work and diligence of its staff, Blythedale was able to navigate the pandemic without any positive patient cases.  At the same time, New York’s positivity rate began to steadily decline—to such an extent that Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed for in-person, summertime special education classes to resume for a six-week pilot program from July to August. 

More than 100 patients from Blythedale’s Day Hospital program and MPBS returned to a redesigned experience that incorporated a hybrid model of learning (half day in-person and half day distance learning), social distancing, smaller class sizes, masks, health and temperature screenings, plus, significantly enhanced cleaning protocols to maintain the health and safety of everyone inside the building.

At the end of the summer session, no COVID cases were reported among students. While 80% of families opted to send their child for in-person instruction in the summer, that number jumped to nearly 90% for the fall program.

“This has been a daunting task, but one that has been extremely rewarding when you see the smiles on their faces,” said Hersh. 

We’re able to provide these children and families with a sense of structure and a sense of normalcy.”

By weathering this storm of uncertainty and coming out the other end, Dr. Scott Klein, Blythedale’s Chief Medical Officer, feels that some of the important lessons learned should be shared.

“What we’ve done shows that it can work and obviously these are children who have significant medical conditions, so they’re even more in need of caution,” said Klein.  "I think we have guidance we can give to other schools.”

For 19-year-old Horace, an aspiring professional soccer player who battled back from leukemia and a brain injury, the in-person return to Mt. Pleasant Blythedale School couldn’t have come soon enough.

“It feels great. I kind of missed everybody, like my teachers and my therapists,” he said. "I looked forward to this day at Blythedale because without them I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”

Eulalia Chicaiza agreed and praised the Hospital-School partnership while dropping off her son, Jaccob, for his first day of third grade. The nine-year-old was able to continue his academics while simultaneously relearning how to walk, talk, eat and perform self-care activities after a devastating brain hemorrhage.

“They just have the patience, the love and the expertise in the way they treat him and teach him,” said Chicaiza.  "I thank them for bringing my son back to me.”

The support provided under one roof, whether through the School or Hospital, helps each child reach their potential and resume their lives.

“I learn about everything here,” said four-year-old Oliver, an MPBS kindergartener participating in Blythedale’s specialized feeding program.  “I learned how to wash my hands to get rid of germs and I get to see my favorite friend—my teacher, Steve.  I love school.”