For 10,550 of Minnesota’s public school teachers the sudden shift to distance learning has brought with it an additional challenge: how to reach the more than 144,000 public and charter school students who are enrolled in special education.
“In the special ed world, you think that some families and some kids will be fine,” said Ellyn Hays, a speech pathologist at Hilltop Primary in Minnetrista. But just the difference in physical space, the transition from a school setting to being at home, is making it more challenging than expected, she said.
With the first week of remote teaching behind her, Hays said she’s having to readjust, to differentiate between the “can dos” and the “have to dos” while, as she puts it, her students are “living through a time where their whole world is upended.”
Westonka Schools has nearly 450 students enrolled in its special ed program for the current academic year. Many of these kids are in general education classrooms, but due to developmental or learning disabilities they rely on the added support of paraprofessionals to achieve academically and, often, to remain in an emotional mindset that’s conducive to learning.
“By distance learning, we’re losing that ability to have relationships in person. That’s a huge piece of working with students and building that trust in asking for help if they need it,” said DeAnn Fink, a special education teacher at Mound Westonka High School.
Paraprofessionals won’t be able to follow their students into the home, and communication with their students will have to be done electronically. Teachers and paraprofessionals will continue to work closely with students’ IEPs, though the conferencing will be done electronically, and staff will provide other accommodations—reading an exam to a student, one-on-one live chats, adjusted timelines for curricula—when needed, said Fink.
“We are working at being flexible in creative ways. There’s a lot to work through as far as how things will look, but we still need to provide accommodations to the best of our ability.”
Families and teachers of many students enrolled in special education will in the coming weeks have to learn how to manage the stress response in students who, many of them, are more prone to emotional instability during times of change.
“Externally forced change is especially difficult, even if kids can understand the reasons; and we’re talking about tons of really difficult changes – being stuck at home, having a different learning modality,” said Robyn DeCourcy. DeCourcy is an education specialist with the Autism Society of Minnesota.
For those students with a disorder like Autism and who also need extra occupational or speech therapy, it can be especially difficult just to make the switch from in-person interaction to receiving that help through a screen.
“Even if these things aren’t canceled per se, they’re different,” said DeCourcy. “It’s a lot of things that compound each other.”
It’s something that Fink at MWHS said in the week before distance learning started that she’s a little anxious about, having experienced firsthand over the eight years she’s been teaching special education that for some students it can be difficult to communicate even in person, let alone to get have them interact with an image on a screen.
Additional stress, whether from the change in routine or from intuiting the anxieties of those around them, can take a toll on students’ ability to learn, and managing stress becomes a big part of the challenge, said DeCourcy.
“That might be so much effort that they may not access everything out there [academically],” said DeCourcy. “We might find that there is a lag, that these kids may be significantly behind their peers.”
Academic learning should still happen, said DeCourcy, but teachers should “extend a lot of extra grace” to parents and caregivers at this time.
“Prioritize the mental and emotional wellbeing and look for it; recognize there is oher learning happening right now,” she said.
Hays, the speech pathologist at Hilltop, and Fink at MWHS each said they’re trying to keep a growth mindset and maintain flexibility in their plans going forward.
Said Hays, “These kids are living through a time where their whole world is upended.” But, she said, “We can do hard things, and we can do these things together.”