The field of Special Education’s struggles amid a pandemic
While many across the country are struggling with the new normal of moving education online, one population is facing more struggles than most. School districts are trying to identify ways to support children with disabilities outside of the classroom.
Danielle Stein ‘18 is a teacher in Plano ISD. She knows firsthand the struggles special education students face, especially when comprehending directions. She said they need simple directions as well as modeling and repetitive learning procedures. These struggles will be magnified outside the classroom.
“Their struggles are still going to be there, but now they don’t have someone to ask for help that knows their educational struggles like the back of their hand,” said Stein. “Parents will do their best, but it is not the same as someone who is trained and has been teaching that child these concepts for months.”
The Texas Education Agency put together guidance on special education and special populations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including answers to questions asked by both parents and school districts. The key, according to the TEA, is for districts to be “flexible and considering employing a variety of delivery options as they make reasonable efforts to provide services to students with disabilities.”
“My district’s SPED department and our special populations director have been working to assist us in a variety of ways,” said Emilie Colwell ‘16, a teacher in Waxahachie ISD. “We are being provided with suggestions of ways to assist our students digitally and how to keep track of how we are assisting them. We will be meeting weekly over video conference throughout this process to be able to address issues/concerns as they come up.”
Many school districts are working to put together educational resources both online and printed to help maintain continuity of learning experiences. Districts have also been encouraged by the state to consider accommodations and modifications that students need to ensure equal opportunity of access.
The U.S. Department of Education released a fact sheet to address rumors regarding online education for students with disabilities. According to the memo, some educators have been reluctant to provide online instruction because they believe federal disability law presents barriers to do so.
The DoE said that is not the case and the federal disability laws “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” In fact, school districts must provide the same educational opportunities to students with disabilities – whether it be online or over the phone.
“Not a single teacher is prepared for this. Some of us already have and use Google Classroom, but not a single teacher was ever taught ‘in the event of a pandemic when you have to provide remote instruction, do x, y and z…’,” said Stein. “We are all trying our best to provide equal instructional opportunities that are accessible and manageable for students and their parents. It requires a lot of collaboration, flexibility, trial and error, and open communication.”
This is not just new territory for teachers and administrators. Parents are having to take on a new role at home and students are having to struggle to learn in a new way.
“There is so much that cannot be done at home. Parents don’t have the knowledge and background in special education that we do. It’s not fair to expect them to teach their children like we do at school,” said Maddie Murphy ‘17, a teacher in Klein ISD. “However, it’s how they learn best, so we as teachers are equipping them with as many virtual resources that we can. I’m also mailing printed packets of work for those who don’t have access to technology.”
In the end, educators say it is important to keep a modified version of a daily schedule similar to what the student had at school. This will help to decrease anxiety and potential problem behaviors. Autism Speaks released information for guidance on creating a schedule and how to structure at-home learning activities for students with disabilities.
For Stein, her goal is to stay connected and offer support in any way she can.
“The biggest thing is our unconditional love and support. We can provide videos and conferencing, but it’s not the same as being around a teacher that has supported you and loved you no matter what,” said Stein. “I know I miss my students so much, and I am sure that they are missing all of us just the same.”
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