School-Based Travel Therapists Find Strength in Numbers
Las Vegas, Nevada's Clark County School District (CCSD), the fifth-largest school district in the nation, has been a virtual learning environment since the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Parents and students juggle work and home learning while teachers adapt their fieldwork training to a teletherapy environment.
Although COVID-19 has brought numerous challenges to education, school travel therapists have shown remarkable resilience in meeting the needs of their students, parents, and community. But finding a way to cope with the pandemic is critical to overall success. For five traveling therapists working within CCSD, their support group began with a simple Facebook post.
After receiving her graduate degree in July 2020, speech-language pathologist Natalie Rosen arrived in Vegas to work at a CCSD elementary school. Originally from Minnesota, she knew she wanted to travel right after graduation.
"I read more about traveling and talked to my mom about it," she said. "She's a nurse and deals with travel nurses quite a bit. She said, 'There has to be a speech therapy route.' And yes, I found it. And toward the end of graduate school, I decided to spread my wings and go and move across the country."
She spoke to several recruiters and chose AMN Healthcare because her recruiter, Tara Schmidt, was very supportive and communicative.
"I love the schools, and I love my kids, but as a new professional, I want to see everything that I can do," Natalie said. "I love that as a traveler; you can jump from schools to hospitals to nursing homes to home health to early education. All those things drew me to speech therapy."
During her job interview with CCSD, Natalie learned that the district employed many SLPs and other travelers. Soon after arriving in Vegas, Natalie posted on a Facebook travel therapist page, hoping to meet other travelers. It didn't take long before she received replies.
Amanda Boylan, OT
After finishing her graduate degree in occupational therapy, Amanda Boylan felt nothing was holding her down. She did fieldwork in Wisconsin and Missouri and was contemplating applying for jobs at both locations. But instead, she reached out to travel recruiters and ended up signing with AMN Healthcare because of recruiter Zach Meyer, who Amanda said was honest and straightforward about OT opportunities. She chose a school district assignment because of her past fieldwork.
“During my undergraduate degree in special education, I was pre-student teaching in the Minneapolis Public School District, which was my first introduction to working with students receiving occupational therapy services,” she said. “I then completed my first fieldwork of graduate school in a medical day program in St. Louis, with a focus on feeding and school-readiness. Those experiences sparked my interest in working as an occupational therapist within the school setting. A nine-month placement for my first travel assignment offered me the opportunity to establish my foundation as a new therapist, as opposed to the traditional three-month placements.”
Soon after arriving in Vegas, Amanda answered Natalie's Facebook post. When Amanda met up with Natalie for the first time, she was introduced to fellow OT Mallory Varnum, who had also answered the post.
Like her two friends, Mallory also started traveling as a new grad. She remembered hearing a pitch on traveling while at school, taking a brochure, and putting it on her refrigerator.
"So much of traveling for me is based on a desire to learn," she said. "Much of the biggest growth that I've had in my life came from learning from new people, new places, and new experiences. I wanted to be intentional in seeking that out of my career. I didn't travel a lot when I was younger, but I crave those experiences now. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that."
Mallory said she is with AMN Healthcare because of the number of school-based contracts they have available.
Soon after arriving in Vegas, she saw Natalie's Facebook post and responded.
"My very first week out here in Vegas, we had connected via a Facebook group for travelers," she said. "We met up and just naturally formed this perfect little friend group. Moving here, not knowing absolutely anybody, it worked out really nicely to have that support group and that friend group shortly after getting here."
Speech-language pathologist Shayna Fillipovich said she started traveling to become a well-rounded clinician. She noticed that many SLPs she had contacted worked with the same population and disabilities most of their careers. They didn't have the variety of experience she was seeking.
"Traveling lets me work with a variety of staff, families, and students in many different cultures, ethnicities, languages, disabilities, and different environmental factors," she said. "I also have a life goal of visiting all 50 States by the time I'm 30. And then visiting all the national parks in the United States."
As an avid hiker, Shayna has traveled to Northern California and Arizona. She also said working in schools is her main focus. Taking an assignment in CCSD, which is nested within an outside lover's paradise, was a natural fit.
"I like the variety that schools offer," Shayna said. "And I like being able to co-treat with the OTs, PTs, and the resource teachers."
After arriving in Vegas, Shayna responded to Natalie's post and soon found herself among a growing group of friends.
Breanna Purnell's father is an avid traveler for his work, and Breanna accompanied him on many trips during her college and undergrad years. This, along with her penchant for rock climbing, influenced her to explore more of the world.
In 2019, she finished grad school and did her clinical fellow as a speech-language therapist at a private practice before taking a full-time job in southern Oregon. It wasn't a good fit, so she reached out to AMN Healthcare and took a school-based travel assignment in the same area. She said it was a beautiful location but lacked nearby world-class rock climbing. She was also motivated to expand her skillset. So when CCSD offered her a job, she took it.
"I wanted to work with a variety of people," she said. "The more people you work with, the more experiences you'll have, because every therapist in every district has a different way of doing things, such as a different documentation system or different processes for IEP."
In preparation for her next assignment, Breanna reached out to a Las Vegas traveler she found on Instagram, fellow SLP, and outdoor enthusiast Shayna Fillipovich. Drawn by their mutual interests, Shayna would later introduce Breanna to the rest of the group.
Natalie, Amanda, Mallory, Shayna, and Breanna all work at different schools within the district and have stayed active during the pandemic. Sometimes the group does activities together, and other times it's with other travelers as well.
They have visited many nearby, majestic sites, attended happy hours, watched their favorite television shows, and gone on weekend adventures. Last autumn, a few group members visited Flagstaff, Arizona, to see the fall colors.
Recently the group went camping and backpacking in Utah. For Mallory, it was an eye-opening experience.
"We went on a trip, and it was my first time going backpacking," Mallory said. "Breanna was our guide, teaching us what to do and helping us with our gear. We backpacked 18 miles to Reflection Canyon. We were just totally isolated. It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. Just that thought of having to keep going, keep hiking all those miles, and I had about 30 pounds on my back. It was a very tough thing, and it was cold. But it was just one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen."
Shayna also helped lead the group, working the map and keeping them on pace through the challenging terrain.
Amanda said the group has helped her get out of her comfort zone by going hiking and camping.
The group jokes about one of the trip's mishaps. They didn't bring enough fuel to boil the water for their food. Some hikers satisfied their well-earned hunger by eating crunchy, dehydrated lasagna for dinner served in lukewarm water.
Working During a Pandemic
Working during the pandemic has its challenges, such as changing COVID guidelines, the inability to work with students and parents in person, and problem-solving with your peers because of virtual learning and social distancing.
But for the group, having a connection has been very helpful.
"It's nice that we have a group to bounce ideas, professionally and non-professionally, and let out any frustrations that might arise," said Shayna. "I like knowing that I can send the group a question. Sometimes it's as simple as, 'Hey, do you understand this?' When everyone says, 'No,' then I know it's not just me not understanding. And together, we figure it out.
Amanda said she has a mentor through the school who has also been very helpful.
"It's been a little hectic, but my mentor responds really fast and always offers to meet up over Zoom or Google Meet," she said. "She lets me bounce questions off of her. She has a lot of experience working in the district."
Natalie said that her professors in grad school pushed the concept of students going into the field to practice SLP in person. But presently, COVID-19 has changed that, and therapists must adapt.
"It's been difficult learning the technology, keeping things interesting for the kids, and getting the data that you need," Natalie said. "But I do appreciate the support that I have through my supervisor and having so many people I can reach out to ask questions. With COVID and how much it fluctuates, we're always getting different rules and being guided in different ways."
Breanna said that an essential attribute to being a successful traveler is staying flexible, especially in usual times such as a worldwide pandemic.
"A lot of people in our profession already have to be flexible," she said. "But COVID raises the bar on flexibility because of the new technology we use and people you're dealing with having so much more going on in their lives. Plus, as a traveler, you're always going somewhere new, and you're going to need to work with new people. So being flexible and outgoing helps you to meet people."
Some group members said they are still deciding whether to extend at CCSD once the school year ends. All look forward to their next travel adventure.
Mallory said she wants to try different places. The school was a comfort zone for her, and now she wants to enhance her clinician skills, possibly in a hospital or skilled nursing facility.
Amanda said she enjoys working in the school district and yearns to do inpatient rehabilitation and acute care.
Breanna said she is taking it one year at a time and will see what happens after the school year ends. However, she is interested in a short-term assignment in Alaska or Hawaii over the summer.
Shayna is still deciding if she will extend for another year at CCSD. Eventually, she wants to head to the Pacific Northwest and visit the national parks in Washington State.
Natalie is unsure about what's next but is looking into working at camps over the summer to expand her skills. You can read more about Natalie's adventures by visiting her blog.
Regardless of their paths after the school year ends, the group has achieved lasting friendships and memories while successfully navigating a challenging time. As travelers, wherever they go, those experiences and relationships will fuel their success.