How Special Education Professionals Keep Teaching During COVID-19

Accessible materials, physical interaction and reliable internet have all been in short supply during the past few months.

By Joy DiazAugust 12, 2020 12:22 pm, ,

The pandemic has required many adjustments for educators and students. For students with disabilities, and the teachers who work with them, remote learning has provided a unique set of challenges. 

Texas Standard spoke with three educators from across Texas about how the work they do has changed in the past few months, and what they expect in the coming school year. 

Debra Leff is an education specialist for students with visual impairment for Region 13, in the Austin area. Accessing materials that blind and visually impaired students can read is the greatest challenge teachers she works with are facing. Printed materials must either be converted into Braille or another format blind students can use, or they must be available in an computer format that’s already accessible.

Amelia McMillen is principal of Jo Kelly School in Fort Worth. She works with children who have significant disabilities, are medically fragile or need intensive behavioral support. She said she and others on her staff weren’t prepared for the closure of schools last spring. They also needed access to materials in accessible formats, and spent time coaching parents and caregivers to help children continue with their education while school was closed. McMillen said coaching will continue to be important during the coming school year. 

“Every single one of our teachers here – we miss the students greatly,” she said.

To help students meet their Individual Educational Program, or IEP, goals, McMillen said the Jo Kelly School will offer remote or in-person instruction by appointment, as needed. Students who receive special education services are required to have an IEP that guides the curriculum and services they receive.

Bill Bacon is the special education teacher for Divide Independent School District, the smallest school district in Texas. Bacon is also a general education teacher. He said the challenge of remote learning for special education students – and all students, really – in his district begins with internet access. 

“We have internet issues that maybe not everybody else has,” he said. “And when we do have it, it’s expensive.”

Bacon said he can only get internet access at his own home via a Wi-Fi hot spot. The first month’s bill was $1,200, he said. 

To get needed materials to students this spring, Bacon said school staff had to get creative.

“We made packets and sent them home, did a lot by phone, met some of them in front yards and under trees or on the side of the road,” he said. 

Results were mixed, with some students doing well, while others “tread water.”

McMillen said working online is not possible for many of her students. The school has arranged to deliver not only materials, but equipment, and has also provided help for parents. Access to good internet connectivity is a problem for her students, too; Google Chromebook laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots don’t always work. 

“Some places, there just wasn’t a signal available,” she said.

McMillen said she and her staff often communicate by phone with parents and caregivers about educational plans, rather than online. 

Even returning to in-person learning presents special challenges for students who rely on physical interaction with their teachers. Social distancing requirements limit a teacher’s ability to show a student who is blind, or who has multiple disabilities, how to accomplish a task. 

“It’s all about engaging with them and meeting them where they are, and interacting with them,” said Leff of Region 13.

Region 13 has developed resources for teachers who will be working with students in person. But it’s hard on students, she said.

“They’re used to having a pretty close relationship [with teachers]. It makes it very difficult.”

All three agreed that educators and other staff in their schools have pitched in to help meet the needs of students with disabilities.

“The biggest silver lining I think I’ve noticed is how much the heart is there,” McMillen said. “Because you don’t always have teachers that … really want to do whatever it takes. And I’ve seen that community of teachers, not just in Texas, but teachers all over the place that are willing to share.”

Web story by Shelly Brisbin.

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