In March 2020, the whole world seemed to stop turning as we all tried to figure out how to navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, and adapt to whatever was going to be the “new normal.” HABIC halted all therapy animal visits. In schools everywhere, students and teachers worked to find a way to learn remotely for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.
The in-person learning restrictions remained as we embarked on the new school year this past August. But as local schools started to move into their “phase 2,” which included having small groups of students come to school, HABIC stayed connected in whatever way we could. We sent ‘Welcome Back to School’ flyers, so they could see some familiar fuzzy faces and know that we were thinking of them!
There had been a lot of discussion about starting up HABIC visits, but parents, students, teachers, and school professionals faced many challenges in adjusting to remote and hybrid learning. In November, we were thrilled when Poudre School District and Thompson School District began reaching out for the new possibilities of virtual animal-assisted therapy.
Virtual therapy animal work brings new forms of engagement
We succeeded in setting up virtual visits with Thompson Schools. Since March 4, a HABIC team has been meeting with two different classes of 3-6 students to work on social-emotional behaviors. Both classes are with students at Centennial Elementary in Loveland, meeting every other week for 30 minutes each. Students are asked how they are feeling before and after each session.
No one was sure how it would go. During the first session, one student didn’t even want to be seen on screen. But then things started happening! After about five minutes, he started to talk about his animals at home; after than he was comfortable being involved. Another student who was in an upset mood before the session and refused to do any work, got right to work and finished the day out strong after the HABIC virtual session.
HABIC also began connecting with students virtually through storyboards. The goal of these storyboards is to help school professionals and students start a conversation about learning certain skills in a fun and different way. HABIC’s undergraduate intern, Lisa Williams, has been instrumental in creating them, with pictures of our animals modeling daily tasks like teamwork and personal hygiene.
The response to the storyboards has been very positive! “They LOVED learning social skills with the help of the furry friends through the story boards,” said one school professional at Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins. “They had some good laughs and we had productive conversations about similarities and differences between their needs and the animal’s needs.”
In-person therapy dog visits resuming
At the start of 2021, we were thrilled to learn that Thompson school district approved in-person HABIC team visits, for volunteers assisting students with behavioral needs. B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland was the first school to request in-person visits with all new pandemic safety procedures in place. We have had three HABIC teams visiting students weekly since the beginning of March.
“BFK is going great,” said HABIC volunteer Brandie Harnig, who works with her heeler mix, Bella. “The student has really warmed up to Bella and the counselor is amazing. She has been implementing different tasks with Bella that help the student with vocabulary and comprehension, as well as teaching how to interact with animals and learning their cues.”
“Everyone in the school is fabulous and Brooklyn LOVES every minute,” said HABIC volunteer Lee Miketa, who works with Brooklyn, a Black Lab. “She is right in her element and seems to know that when the bandana goes on, it is time to work and follow commands. The last time we met, the student said, ‘This was the best day of my life!’ He seems to be opening up and we are working on using an assertive voice.”
The school professionals who partner with HABIC in administering the therapy animal programming in schools are also happy to see our volunteer teams returning to the hallways of local schools. “I have so appreciated the HABIC teams we’ve had at BFK,” said Jen VonLintel, a school counselor at B.F. Kitchen. “I am very happy to hear they have positive things to say. They are all wonderful. I have a kinder who asks about Bella EVERY SINGLE DAY!”
Currently, we are working with Poudre School District for the 2021-22 school year to have contracts in place. This may include both in-person or virtual visits, since we are still living with the COVID pandemic. Either way, HABIC is ready to take on the 2021-22 school year in schools in whatever way we can to stay connected and work with schools and their students who need us.
About Human-Animal Bond in Colorado
Founded in 1993, Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) is a center in the School of Social Work, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. HABIC’S mission is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic use of companion animals, with particular focus in the areas of community outreach, teaching, and research.