Since COVID-19 physical distancing guidelines were implemented in March, the NCS Infant and Toddler Connection of Fairfax-Falls Church (ITC) has gone above and beyond to continue supporting its 1,400+ families through telepractice/virtual services. The month of May also happens to be Early Intervention Awareness Month, making this an ideal opportunity to celebrate the work of the early intervention team.
ITC provides assessments and early intervention services for infants and toddlers (up to age 3) who have a developmental delay or a diagnosis that may lead to developmental delays. While the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards reports that referrals of infants and toddlers to early intervention services have lagged since the COVID-19 pandemic began, ITC’s 180-member team of county staff and community providers is working hard to keep referrals coming.
By reaching out to area pediatricians and ensuring every family who is referred receives a phone call back within hours, they have completed 170 initial individual family service plans in the past seven weeks via virtual HIPAA-compliant support.
Going Above and Beyond
In the first week of pandemic-related closures alone, ITC service coordinators contacted all current ITC families to share child development resources and community supports as well as address essential needs such as meals, medical assistance, job and financial resources, and counseling.
Prior to COVID-19, the team typically provided more than 3,000 in-home and community face-to-face visits monthly. Since embracing telepractice service delivery, they continue to perform at a high level, providing an average of 500 virtual intervention visits a week (about 2,000 per month) via computer, tablet/smart device or phone.
ITC’s telepractice services also include weekly virtual playgroups and on-demand videos of activities, songs and storytimes. During this time of social distancing, these services are providing a vital opportunity for families to connect and engage with one another as well as the familiar faces of ITC staff.
Speech Language Pathologist Kim Griffith said, “Compassion was demonstrated on every level for every family in contact with early intervention services during a time of great uncertainty. Previously, ITC staff conveyed their knowledge, skills, warmth and approachability face to face, and now they excel in their ability to establish rapport and trust with families through a screen.”
Preparation Is Key
Of course, this transition was by no means easy, and preparations were key to its success. ITC relied on vendor agencies already familiar with telepractice services to share their knowledge about needed skill sets, licensure requirements and legalities. They worked with supervisors to create comprehensive training and certify all ITC providers. Administrative staff, service coordinators and interventionists developed scripts to help explain to families how to use the HIPAA-compliant telepractice platform.
To stay ahead of issues with technology, staff rehearsed telepractice sessions and assessments with each other and their own children. The team also scheduled practice sessions with willing parents, and they provided written instruction in English and Spanish on telepractice guidance.
Thanks to this tremendous effort, ITC was ready to provide all services by telepractice within just six days of suspending face-to-face visits.
According to ITC Director Susan Sigler, “The speed with which this exceptional group was able to get up and running is amazing. In addition to the excellent service provision, the administrative and billing staff have become proficient in remotely supporting reimbursement and maximizing revenue collection from all sources. This team has not found one thing that they cannot do remotely.”
Challenges and Lessons Learned
For ITC staff, workdays look a little different now – but they are no less productive. Though technology continues to be the number one challenge during telepractice workdays, issues are typically resolved with efficient technical support and do not impact services.
One interventionist reflected on another challenge providers are now experiencing, noting how she has only her voice and video image to guide families, where she used to have the ability to guide with her hands and touch. She said, “Transitioning to telepractice has really given me the opportunity to focus on my coaching skills and techniques as I work to support families. This format has also helped me take a step back to really observe and listen as I watch caregivers and their children.”
Another interventionist commented, “The shift to telepractice has both challenged families and provided opportunities for them to further develop the skills and knowledge to support their children. Families are thinking ‘outside the box’ in their new daily routines as well as their early intervention telepractice sessions.”
A United Effort
ITC families have expressed gratitude to the early intervention team for its continued knowledge, engagement and thoughtfulness despite the barriers COVID-19 presents. While a small percentage of families have chosen not to initiate or continue early intervention services using telepractice, ITC remains available to them via the HIPAA-compliant telepractice platform.
The united effort of the Fairfax County ITC team illustrates the true commitment of each team member to assist under any condition. Early intervention is all about the importance of providing supports as early in life as possible – and even a few weeks or months in the life of young child makes a difference.
For more information on ITC services and referrals, visit the ITC website or call 703-246-7121.