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Child’s new normal: speech therapy through a computer screen

Students with special needs have taken a variety of unexpected journeys during the coronavirus pandemic as they finish the school year remotely.

TEMPLE TERRACE — Nine o’clock rolls around and, as the world is learning and tele-working and fretting about the virus, Peyton Bouret is getting ready for her speech lesson.

Hair pulled back and headset on, she heads into her last lesson of the school year. She is 7, and a first-grade student at Woodmont Charter School.

Without asking for such an honor, she is part of a worldwide experiment that poses some questions: Can children learn without being in school? Specifically, the 415,000 children in Florida with diagnosed disabilities?

• • •

Speech pathologist Stephanie Zalich says a quick good morning over Zoom. She displays a screen with a selection of children’s books. They settle on a title: Jelly Beans.

Today’s goal: Working on Peyton’s R’s, which often sound like W’s.

Speech pathologist Stephanie Zalich. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

Zalich picks the R-inclusive words out after every sentence. "Tongue higher,” she says. “Keep smiling. Pull your tongue back and smile big. That’s a great growling R.”

They move on to a simulated board game in which players have to pronounce words before they can move their pieces. Brush. Garbage. “Stinky garbage,” Peyton says, and she has to be told not to cover her mouth.

Row. That’s a tough one, as it has both an R and a W. Peyton starts singing Row, Row, Row your Boat. Before long, she is singing a variation of the song with every new word.

Zalich continues to remind her to pull her tongue back, to smile, “Shorts” is a challenge because the "R" is followed by a “T,” which means biting down.

They high-five each other when they land on the same square. Peyton is still grinning when the lesson ends after 30 minutes.

• • •

Peyton lives with her father, a truck-driver, and her stepmother, a paralegal who is also studying for her certification at the University of South Florida.

Peyton Bouret and her stepmother, Tina Lawrence-Bouret, on a Zoom call after Peyton's last speech therapy session at Woodmont Charter School. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

The couple were on a European vacation when the pandemic hit. They cut their trip short and returned to Florida by way of Georgia. With the schools closing, Tina Lawrence-Bouret had to take Peyton to the office until she was able to work remotely.

Families everywhere struggled with the transition to home learning, and the Bourets were no different. “I think sometimes schools forget that parents are working from home, so trying to do both is a real juggling act,” Lawrence-Bouret said. “I want to give her all the attention she needs to learn, so it was a real struggle.”

Her father, Carlos Bouret, worked with her on her art, music and physical education lessons.

But Peyton missed her pre-COVID-19 life. “Just yesterday she was crying,” Lawrence-Bouret said. “She wanted to be back in school and see everyone.”

When virtual therapy began, “she was just so excited to see someone — really, someone that wasn’t me. She wanted to talk and just tell her everything that was happening. She just wanted to talk and talk and talk.”

Zalich, 38, has been Peyton’s speech pathologist since the beginning of kindergarten. “She was about 30 percent intelligible when we started,” Zalich said. “She was super-smart, but was not able to be understood.”

Peyton’s parents are thrilled with the progress the two have made.

But just as Peyton had to adjust when lessons became remote, Zalich had to change her outlook and approach.

“I never used my computer before,” she said. “My whole point is, these kids have enough tech in their lives. So I work mostly hands-on, doing things in the classroom. I had to completely turn it over."

She took advantage of school district training sessions, which are available for charter school teachers too. Speech therapy already exists in online programs such as Florida Virtual School, and colleagues referred her to blog articles.

She realized some letter sounds are not easy to correct in a virtual setting. A mispronounced R is obvious. But when a “TH” sounds like an “F” or an “S,” the problem might be a hissing in the microphone. “And I don’t want to frustrate them if they’re saying it right,” she said.

A larger problem will occur if schools re-open with students and teachers wearing masks.

“My child has to see my mouth and I have to see the child’s mouth,” Zalich said. “I would be more concerned about returning with a mask than staying remotely.”

• • •

Peyton had a little bit of trouble saying goodbye to Zalich at the end of the lesson. “I’m only going to see her next year, which is sad," she said. When asked what she plans to do all summer, she said, “I’m going to pick flowers.”

Her stepmother has other ideas. Just Friday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis said summer camps will be allowed to open with little to no restrictions.

Even before that announcement, Lawrence-Bouret said, “we’re hoping we can get her into either the local rec center or the YMCA.”

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