If Meredith Morton asked her Magic 8-Ball in middle school if she’d be supporting youth with disabilities as a career, it certainly would have answered: “all signs point to yes.”
Throughout middle and high school, Meredith assisted with a local therapeutic riding program, before heading off to college in the Shenandoah Valley. After earning her Master’s at UVA, she worked 2 years as a PE teacher; one in Frederick County, the second at Cool Spring Elementary in Hanover. Fate stepped in and in 2007, she accepted the role as Hanover County Public School’s Adapted Physical Education Specialist, where she remains responsible for half of the county’s adapted PE programming. She spends time not only working with students individually, but also showing teachers on how to make modifications so students with disabilities can be included in regular PE classes and activities.
Although she’s been teaching for more than 15 years, this last year likely has been one of the hardest. COVID canceled months of planning for April 2020’s annual “Big Feet Meet,” where elementary and middle school students from across the county gather to showcase their skills in various athletic events alongside peer partners. And this school year (2020-21) also has looked different on so many levels.
But Meredith – and many other teachers across Virginia – have risen to the occasion and continued to create meaningful opportunities for their students with disabilities. In fact, 10 school districts across Virginia continued “Feet Meet” programming (and another 28 districts activated another Unified Champion School activity/activities), some virtual and some in-person, despite all the challenges the pandemic added to their already overfilled plates. Why? For Meredith, a former Shape America Teacher of the Year, it’s both simple and complex.
“Our kids need to move,” she said. “They have higher obesity rates and they’re often in classrooms where they sit most of the day. They need physical activity – even if it’s just a walk in the halls during the school day.”
But it’s also about inclusion, she added. “I want these students to be included and recognized,” she said. “They may not be recognized as many other students are for their grades, their attendance or a principal’s award. On the day of the Feet Meet, they are celebrated because they did something important for their school and for themselves. Their parents have something to hang on the fridge – and that’s likely not a common opportunity within the disability community.”
“I want these students to be included and recognized.”
So Meredith, alongside many other teachers across Virginia and with the support of Special Olympics Virginia’s staff, found ways to adapt. In Hanover, 7 elementary and 4 middle schools held school-based Feet Meets. Meredith created trainings on how to implement the activities both in the classrooms and for any virtual families at home. While peer partners weren’t permitted, some classes made cards for the student-athletes, while others hung banners and celebrated them on the morning announcements.
Another silver lining – the Young Athletes preschool program was reintroduced to many Hanover students thanks to individual equipment bags provided by Special Olympics. Meredith is hoping to drive more participation here in the coming school year, which will only help the Feet Meet grow in size, too.
“I’m happy we found ways to make things happen,” she said, “but I’m also really hoping you’ll find us next April outside at Atlee High School with hundreds of students moving and running around. Still, no matter what it looks like, we will find a way. Our students deserve it.”