ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Many programs have had to alter their plans since school closures in early 2020. The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools program runs on in-person sporting events, and they were one of many who had to pivot to a digital format.

Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools is a strategy for schools Pre-K through university that promotes social inclusion by bringing together students with and without intellectual disabilities to create accepting school environments, utilizing three interconnected components: Special Olympics Unified Sports, inclusive youth leadership, and whole-school engagement.

Rebecca Whitlock, Manager of the Unified Champion Schools program, said the program had to cancel nearly 27 events planned for last year’s spring programming. Since the organization is grant-based, they had $100,000 that they had to spend.

Whitlock got together with a committee of teachers and created lesson plans that they would send out twice a month. She would include links to around 40 YouTube videos centered on meditation, fitness, and nutrition. “It was really just taking what we were doing before and growing,” Whitlock said.

The challenge that came with doing these videos at home, was that many students didn’t have the necessary equipment to participate along with the video instruction. They used the majority of that grant money to provide around 800 backpacks that contained frisbees, cones, jump ropes, and pedometers for students participating in the program.

“It’s really been challenging, but our teachers have been rock stars. They’ve been handing out equipment, they’ve been doing awards, they’ve been doing their own little competitions. I think they really got to experience playing with them more because before they were really more coaches and advocates, but now that they’re doing virtual, they have to do everything with them,” Whitlock said.

Marisa Cogan is a special education teacher at La Cueva High School and also works with her school’s Unified Schools program. She said while her students are anxious to get back to school with their peers, they also have seen the virtual programming can be beneficial to the students. “We’ve seen so many positive things happen in our school because of it. We’re just seeing great things happen from it, so we’re huge advocates for it to happen across the state, the more programs like that, the more people we can compete against,” said Cogan.

The New Mexico Activities Association has started allowing students to play sports again, so Whitmore hopes their in-person activities will be able to resume in a COVID-compliant manner. “I think we really crave the joy from our events, but I think our athletes need it. They’re so isolated, they’re just not getting the support they need right now so I think any form of normalcy we can give them next year is really what we’re going for,” Whitlock said.