A special education teacher explains why virtual learning is so hard on her students

Setting up a virtual classroom is not easy. As the coronavirus pandemic brings the country’s education system to a halt, teachers have navigated through computer shortages, patchy internet access, and chaotic Zoom calls to provide their students with a valuable lesson plan at a time when no one can leave their home. But for special education teachers, there are many other variables to consider – and teacher Taylor Elise, 24, says many don’t get the guidance they need.

There are more than 6 million children in the United States receive special educational services. Elise, who lives in North Carolina, teaches eleven. She says that since the state closed schools in mid-March, district overseers have focused almost exclusively on students in general education. The resources she received are often geared to school plans outside of the special ed and have little use for her. Instead, Elise finds herself deviating from the county’s advice to generate her own curriculum and her own virtual lessons, for lack of reliable leadership.

This has proved extremely difficult. As is the case in so many special education classrooms, Elise’s students have a wide variety of unique needs and skills. Some of her students, she says, are non-verbal and rely on physical interaction. How do you virtually translate this care? What about the students who live in Spanish-speaking households, or those who don’t have an extra laptop? These are the questions that Elise, often all alone, has to answer. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, slightly edited for clarity and length.

When did the pandemic start to affect your work?

So on March 11 or 12, schools in Durham County announced they would be closing. That was the first suspicion that something would happen in North Carolina. I am in Wake County [bordering Durham County], we were waiting, and at the end of the day on Friday we thought we were going to school on Monday. But on Sunday, they announced that they would be closing schools because a primary school teacher had tested positive. I said to my kids, “Hello, see you Monday!” And that turned into, “We won’t be in school indefinitely.”

What do you remember about the immediate aftermath of that?

Then we sent information to parents to get information about what they needed in terms of food and resources. The following week, I dropped food for two of my families. We have a Backpack Buddies program, which has received a lot of donations.

We have a list of students receiving food from this program throughout the year. One of them, a single mother with two special children, told me they only had one computer. The question was immediately: “What do we do?” The answer was, “I don’t know.” There are many – many of them: “I don’t know, tight.” Fortunately, I have some very good parents who could get me funds in the short term. I had printed worksheets for them before closing because I felt that things could happen. But now that distance learning has started, those questions are coming up more.

What was the distance learning program for children with special needs? Was there a plan to fall back on, or are you inventing things?

From the county’s point of view, they said during the first two weeks of the closure, “We’ll tell you something in the end.” We were a bit alone for those weeks. I set up a number of online resources that parents, who did have access to their computers, could get for their children. I provided simple video sources and tried to explain what was going on and why schools closed. To give you some perspective, my province has started distance learning [April 13], and my director has still not heard about a laptop rollout – we would supply laptops to low-income students. So even today there isn’t really a plan, even though they say it is. The sources I get are general purpose and I had to adapt them to special ed. A lot has been improvised.

How frustrated are you about that?

It’s weird because I’m torn between how crazy it is, and we all need to be flexible and frustrated because the county is still making progress with distance learning when they don’t have what they need. What would be nice to see is that the county comes up and says, “Hey, we’re over our heads and we’ll be honest and say we’re not done yet.”

What have you tried to do to create a valuable digital ecosystem for your students?

I’ve been trying to make recorded video lessons – reading stories, stuff like that – just trying to be the best I can be. It is so hard. In my class I have students who can read whole paragraphs and answer reading comprehension questions. But I also have students who identify letters of the alphabet. It is very difficult to try to make these lessons that they should all tackle, but that is the loose guidance we have received.

I prefer to focus on what they need individually. It feels like we’re just trying to avoid a lawsuit; we say we meet needs when it really doesn’t feel like we are.

What are some of those challenges you don’t think teachers with special education can take on the Internet?

Something people have not thought about is that I have a student who is nonverbal. Her mother speaks Spanish and she does not have a voice output device. If we try to communicate through the computer, she cannot communicate back to me. We usually communicate through physical interaction. There is a big gap there, with students who are non-verbal but are not up to the level of using such a device.

Yesterday I held a live morning meeting to attract the kids so they can see each other but only two of them could join. I can’t physically help them, I can’t physically ask them. I have many students who have never completed work on a computer. I have no idea how this will work out for them.

Do you miss your students?

That much. I was so happy to see the two that came up yesterday. But I was really sad that there was no more. I kept thinking, “Okay, we’ll wait!” We try to have live meetings twice a week. I miss them and they miss each other.

Where do you hope to be in the coming weeks? What do you think is a reasonable goal for you and other teachers in your shoes to make distance learning work for your students?

Part of my goal is to deviate from what the province has given us, because in my opinion that’s not enough. I want to make videos that match the student’s goals or tell the parents how to do it. [I want] to help parents give meaningful instructions in a way they like. That is one of the most difficult things [because] many parents do not feel they know what to do. One of our goals is to give our parents more confidence. In any case, it will be easier to communicate with parents via teleconferences. So I think maybe the best way to reach my kids is through their parents.

Do you think special ed was a mistake during this coronavirus shutdown? Should people pay more attention to teachers like you?

One of my biggest complaints in public education in general is the supervision of special education. I submitted my papers today to resign at the end of the school year due to underfunding. In the first two weeks, we received email after email about what teachers in mainstream education should do, and at the very bottom was a small paragraph that read, “Teachers with special training, hold on.” It is disturbing to see that there was no plan, while there was a plan for the other students.

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