By TYLER ELLYSON
When Kari Slattery interviewed for a position with Columbus Public Schools, the hiring team wanted to know how she would improve the district’s speech-language pathology services.
One specific area immediately came to mind.
The North Platte native knew all about teletherapy.
Slattery earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where telepractice services are part of each student’s graduate school training.
“That’s a big benefit for our students,” said Denise Wolfe, coordinator of the UNK RiteCare Clinic, which provides speech therapy services for clients across the state at no cost to eligible families.
Supported by the Scottish Rite Foundation, the clinic offers both in-person services and teletherapy sessions conducted online via videoconferencing.
“Studies have shown that telepractice services are as effective as face to face,” Wolfe said. “We’re using technology to connect speech pathologists with families who need our services.”
The clinic, located in the College of Education building, also serves as a training center for students enrolled in UNK’s speech-language pathology program. Each student spends one semester working directly with clients while receiving feedback and instruction from faculty.
This experience was one of Slattery’s strengths when she finished the graduate program in May 2019, and it became even more important during her first year with Columbus Public Schools.
As a speech-language pathologist, Slattery worked with about 60 students at two elementary schools through one-on-one, face-to-face meetings.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit Nebraska.
When the district decided to transition to remote learning in mid-March, she needed a new plan.
“Working with these kids during the closure was important,” Slattery said. “I wanted them to continue progressing and keep working on these skills. I didn’t want to see regression.”
Using her knowledge and training from UNK, Slattery made a seamless transition to teletherapy, allowing her to meet with students and their families via Zoom. She also became a valuable resource for colleagues who had little to no experience with online speech therapy.
“I’m just so thankful for UNK,” said Slattery, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in education from the university. “I was set up for success right away.”
Morgan Prochnow was equally prepared for the pandemic.
The Seward native graduated from UNK’s speech-language pathology program in May 2019 after earning a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders.
“I felt relieved to have the experiences I had at UNK,” she said. “That gave me background knowledge to build on.”
A speech-language pathologist at Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Prochnow serves 3- to 5-year-olds with language disorders. When the district went remote, she switched to teletherapy and created a website families can access from home. The website features videos, lessons and other resources parents can use to support their children outside school.
“UNK gave me the opportunity to reach families and meet them where they’re at,” Prochnow said.
Having the ability to serve children both remotely and in person will be important moving forward.
“Things might not look exactly like they did before,” Prochnow said, “and this experience has given me resources I’m now able to incorporate when we go back to school.”
Telepractice services were an important part of Nebraska’s health care system long before the coronavirus outbreak.
According to a University of Nebraska Medical Center report released in February 2018, nearly one-third of the state’s 93 counties don’t have a licensed speech-language pathologist. This shortage is particularly profound in north-central Nebraska and other remote areas.
“In the state of Nebraska, we have lots of rural areas that have limited access to services provided by speech pathologists,” Wolfe said. “Our field is quite small, so we’re also in high demand.”
Through telepractice, speech-language pathologists can serve clients from a distance, eliminating travel time and expenses.
FLEXIBILITY IS KEY
In addition to their training at the RiteCare Clinic, students in UNK’s speech-language pathology program gain face-to-face experience with clients through the Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic on campus.
Also located in the College of Education building, this clinic provides a broad range of services for individuals of all ages.
Students are required to complete 400 hours of clinical work prior to graduation, including internships in both the medical and educational fields.
Burwell native Laini Eddy was in the middle of her internship at Bell Elementary School in Papillion when everything moved online. She finished the internship remotely by meeting with students from her Kearney apartment.
“I felt more prepared because we have that semester with telepractice,” Eddy said. “I felt like I had an edge over students from other programs because that’s something unique to UNK.”
Eddy also worked with clients from UNK’s RiteCare Clinic, holding about 40 total sessions a week to complete her clinical hours by the end of May. She plans to start her job as a medical speech-language pathologist in Kearney later this summer.
“As a speech therapist, flexibility is a skill you need,” said Eddy, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders from UNK. “I feel like I definitely worked on that skill this semester.”
For Wolfe, it’s been rewarding to see her current and former students succeed during an uncertain situation.
“As difficult as this all is, it’s a great feeling knowing they have that confidence because of the training they received at UNK,” she said.