Making it work: Distance learning is a big challenge for special-needs students

Since distance learning began in March, Marybeth Clarke has discovered many new things about her 14-year-old daughter, Elle, who is in seventh grade at the Virginia Institute of Autism’s James C. Hormel School. PC: Zack Wajsgras Since distance learning began in March, Marybeth Clarke has discovered many new things about her 14-year-old daughter, Elle, who is in seventh grade at the Virginia Institute of Autism’s James C. Hormel School. PC: Zack Wajsgras

To the relief of local teachers, parents, and students, this school year is almost at an end. The sudden transition to distance learning back in March posed a challenge to schools across the country, but it’s been especially tricky for special education and English as a Second Language students, along with their teachers and families. These students require individualized, hands-on assistance and care, something that does not lend itself easily to at-home learning.

When schools first shut down, many parents of special ed students did not know the specific strategies and practices that their children’s teachers used in the classroom, says Jessica Doucette, director of education services at Virginia Institute of Autism’s James C. Hormel School. Learning how to work with their student has been even more difficult for parents with full-time jobs, and single-parent households. Distance learning also removed those children from their much-needed classroom routines, which help them to manage behaviors and emotions, says Becca Irvine, a special education teacher at Baker-Butler Elementary.

When ESL students were taken out of the classroom, they lost a crucial learning tool: peer interactions. “English learners, in particular, learn by listening to their peers,” says Albemarle High School ESL teacher Renata Germino. That’s an especially big loss for students whose parents have limited English skills. In Albemarle County alone, there are kids from 96 different countries, speaking more than 80 different languages, according to Germino.

One of the biggest distance-learning challenges for ESL students, teachers say, is one many families have faced: internet access. Schools have provided Wi-Fi hot spots and laptops, among other resources. But some students still do not have adequate internet access. From ACPS’ Check and Connect program, which requires teachers and counselors to contact every student at least once a week, “we know there are 685 students, about 4.7 percent [of the division], who do not have home access to the internet,” says spokesman Phil Giaramita.

To accommodate them, teachers have sent learning materials through the mail, as well as delivered items in person.

And special education and ESL teachers have found a variety of other ways to meet their students’ needs.

Teachers at the James C. Hormel School have provided one-on-one training to parents of students with autism, teaching them how to work on specific skills with their children the same way they would at school, says Doucette.

These trainings and resources have helped Marybeth Clarke learn more about her 14-year-old daughter, Elle, who is in seventh grade at the James C. Hormel School.

“Obviously, I know my daughter inside and out, but I didn’t know her academically. As we approach new subjects and content every week, I have to gauge almost right away [if] there’s a skill missing that she needs in order to understand something else,” says Clarke, who is a stay-at-home mom. “Sometimes I see her do things I had no idea that she could do, and other times…[struggle with] things I had no idea she couldn’t do. It’s definitely a learning curve for me.”

While it was “very rough” for Elle when her school first moved online, she and her mother (with teachers’ support) have been able to establish their own routine at home, which helps Elle complete her work and feel at ease. Every school day, Elle writes in her journal, does online assignments, and receives one-on-one occupational and speech therapy through video chat—all at set times, and with plenty of breaks.

To best help their students, ESL teachers have been translating assignments into the students’ native languages, says Germino. They’ve also provided students with online articles designed for ESL, allowing them to change the reading level and have words read out loud.

But the biggest priority for both special ed and ESL teachers has been maintaining strong relationships and consistent communication with kids and their families, they say.

Like many teachers, Molly Feazel-Orr conducts daily virtual one-on-one meetings with each of her special education students at Burnley-Moran, during which she sets behavioral expectations and gives them a structured schedule for the day.

Teachers have also been videoconferencing regularly with parents, working with them to develop plans for every student that align with their individualized education programs, as required by federal law.

To regularly check in with students and their families, ESL teachers (who don’t already speak their language) use tools like Interpretalk, which puts an interpreter directly on the line, and TalkingPoints, which translates text messages in 100-plus languages. They’ve also used Zoom, Google Meet, and similar platforms to have one-on-one lessons, as well as bring everyone together to practice their English.

It currently remains unclear when students will return to their classrooms. According to Giaramita, the Virginia Department of Education will release a report this month “on timing and various scenarios for the reopening of schools,” which will have a “highly significant influence” on the decisions each school division makes—whether classes will be face-to-face, online only, or a hybrid of the two.

But for now, “we all need to offer grace to ourselves across the board—families, students, administrators, everybody,” says Germino. “This is all brand new for us, and we’re all working really hard to do the best we can.”

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