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'Survival mode': School shutdown hits special education classrooms hard

A few weeks into the extended school closure, six-year-old Brodie Stover-Mejias had a new morning routine. After breakfast, he watches a daily video from Becca Irvine, his special education teacher at Baker-Butler Elementary.

“He was ready for it,” said Pam Stover-Mejias, his mom. “That provided some great structure for us.”

Teachers and experts have recommended setting a daily routine for children to cope with the closure. For students with disabilities, it is all the more important.

“I do think that this extended break is definitely going to adversely affect his beginning in first grade,” Stover-Mejias said. “Like a three-month break in the summer is one thing, but this six-month break is going to really rock his world.”

Federal regulations governing special education have not been waived, and experts expect the shutdown to have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable students, including those with disabilities. With schools closed, students are losing the social interactions with their peers and the daily support they receive in schools as well as the school-based and outside therapy, though some therapists are adapting to remote options.

Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions are working to ease the transition to online learning by regularly checking in with students and families. For Brodie, who has Down syndrome, that has meant regular FaceTime calls with Irvine, who has compiled packets of activities for the family and sent home tools used in the classroom.

Additionally, special education teachers and department staff are working to adapt services and accommodations in order to make sure students with disabilities still get what they need.

In Albemarle County, about 13% of the students are in special education. In Charlottesville, it’s about 14% of students.

Officials said they are keeping families’ needs at the center of their plans.

“Because the work that is being provided cannot replicate what you would do in a six-hour school day,” said Katrina Lee, the supervisor of special education for Charlottesville City Schools. “Being able to acknowledge that is really important in planning for special education. We have students who have hours of services a day if you think about their reading, math, emotional self-regulation and executive functioning. And to do all of that at home when the day for them is very different would be overwhelming.”

Michael Kennedy, an associate professor of special education at the University of Virginia, said students with disabilities struggle with change, and he expects to see learning loss during the shut down as the in-person support can’t be provided.

“But, nobody is making big gains right now, academically anyway,” he said. “I think that’s an unrealistic expectation. I think it may ultimately come out in a wash. … There will be creep and loss, and that will disproportionately impact kids with disabilities. But I feel confident that teachers have good skills for meeting students’ needs. That being said, it is going to be a big challenge.”

Kennedy’s daughter is enrolled in special education in the county schools; he said the in-person and individualized support is what makes special education critical.

“My kid has access to somebody all day if she needs it, whether it is a teacher at the school, or one of her parents” he said. “But, our family is extremely privileged to have access to both excellent technology and family members who can give her full attention if needed. There are a lot of kids from the area who need one-on-one support, but no longer have access to trained personnel or essential resources. And that’s where I fear discrepancies and inequities which already existed may become even more acute.”

With the shut-down, parents are in an impossible situation, he said. He’s looking for teachers to provide instruction during the shutdown, not just assignments.

“I won’t begrudge the school in any way for things that happen over these next few weeks because I know how preposterously difficult and ludicrous this task they’ve been charged with is compared to what they’ve been trained to do and what they normally do,” he said. “I just wish it didn’t impact literally every family with kids with disabilities so disproportionately.”

‘Not a vacation’Becca Irvine turned her guest bedroom into a classroom and films daily videos of activities involving the class calendar — what day and month it is — and playing songs. These videos are a way for her to bring the classroom to each student at home. She works with kindergartners to second-graders.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t know this was necessarily coming or how this is going to be,” Irvine said. “It’s really hard because I can’t provide that for them. That’s a real hardship. But by making a video every day of calendar math, I’d hope is helping them at least have a little bit of consistency, and for that 20-30 minute period of watching my video, they are interacting with me and remembering some of the structure and some of the activities that we’ve been working on.”

She grabbed all the materials to replicate her classroom at home when she was allowed back into the school for one day on March 16. She also used that day to put together individual packets for each student that includes schedules and activity suggestions such as finding shapes at home.

“I’m giving them options that show them they don’t have to have technology access in order to work on basic skills and academic skills,” she said.

Irvine recognizes that teaching students with significant needs virtually is not ideal. In her classroom, they work on life skills such as using the bathroom or greeting others. Now, she’s relying on parents to tell her what they need.

She is finding moments of joy for her students and continuing a class tradition of Fun Fridays. In her daily video on one Friday, she hosted a dance party to the tune of “Baby Shark” and “Pop See Ko.”

“I wanted to do a dance party because we love dancing and we love singing in our classroom,” she said. “… I got some videos from parents of kids dancing with me with their devices. That was really heartwarming and just a cool way to end our week.”

Some of her students’ parents are essential workers in the medical field, so they don’t always have time to sit down and work their children on discrete skills.

“Most of my students do require one-on-one support for academics,” she said.

Irvine said parents have told her homeschooling is hard. They don’t know if they can do it.

“That’s ultimately just so heartbreaking for me because none one of us chose this,” she said. “This is not a vacation. I want to be with my students. I want to be in my classroom. And it’s really hard to know that parents are struggling for this. So I’m trying to do my best to help them.”

‘Survival mode’

Pam Stover-Mejias said she’s getting through the shutdown a day at a time.

“We’re in survival mode,” she said.

She has an older son in third grade who is able to learn independently. But Brodie requires much more support, and they currently are going without the regular caretaker and therapist help they need.

In the initial weeks, Brodie’s resistant behaviors were more present.

“Not wanting to transition between activities has been our biggest challenge just because he does thrive on routine and we totally uprooted all of that from him,” she said.

During Brodie’s kindergarten year, Stover-Mejias saw him grow so much, especially in his communication skills, because of the influence of other students.

“He mimics their behavior and now he’s not around them,” she said. “That’s honestly a bigger concern of mine than any of the academics. And we can’t get him together with other kids to have that right now. That’s a struggle that I think we’re going to have to deal with.”

In the meantime, the family is working to set up a new routine. Now, after watching the calendar video, Brodie has a virtual lesson with Irvine, either over FaceTime or Zoom. He also has sessions with his kindergarten teacher.

During the day, they play outside and have art class with chalk in the driveway. The family is still figuring out how to make virtual lessons effective, especially since Brodie typically always needs an adult with him.

“We’re very active,” she said. “I have two boys who really need that, otherwise we can’t survive when we are in the home.”

For Stover-Mejias, the teachers at Baker-Butler have been a godsend during this time. Irvine dropped off a packet of papers to her office, and her son’s third-grade teacher has had daily activities prepared, even before distance learning officially began April 13.

She doesn’t think they’ll run out of the worksheets or activities that Irvine provided. The packet included a laminated “Toy Story” alphabet book (Brodie loves Disney movies), and a token board to help with behavior.

“We’re very lucky to have fabulous educators supporting us through this,” she said.

Virtual special educationFor Charlottesville City Schools, the No. 1 priority for special education is to make connections with families and students and to support them, reflecting the division’s overall strategy during the shutdown.

“So many families are struggling right now with jobs, layoffs and furloughs, and families not having access to income,” Lee said. “All of those factors are going to play into how our students receive the best laid plans that we have.”

Still, the academic components must continue. Both school systems are encouraging collaboration among special and general education teachers to modify assignments and make materials accessible for students.

“Instead of special education teachers having to take what the teacher is doing or what the booklet that was sent home has, we’re on the front-end making those materials as accessible as possible for our students,” said Rachel Rasnake, the division’s coordinator of special education and student services. “And that way, we’re starting from the get-go with thinking about our students who have different abilities.”

Special education will look different for the next two months, but officials in both school districts say they plan to continue to provide services during the shutdown, as required by federal law, and focusing on a key goal in special education — to ensure students can access the general education curriculum.

Lee and Rasnake said the division started planning for the closure before schools were shut down. That helped them to have a more detailed blueprint for how to continue learning virtually.

Charlottesville is continuing to use online platforms that students used in school, which Lee said helps with the transition. Additionally, special education teachers have set up times to provide online support to students.

The division is also keeping in mind that parents are not special educators.

Although the school division isn’t trying to replicate a student’s individualized education program at home, Lee said students will have comparable access to general education, the same level of strategies and the support of special education teachers to ensure a free and appropriate public education — the federal standard.

“I think that’s one of the bigger pieces is that everything that we will be providing our general education students, our special education students will have access to and will be adapted according to each disability category,” Lee said. “That’s going to be huge and important.”

In Albemarle County, special education teachers are part of the division’s Check and Connect moment that entails weekly phone calls to families. The special and general education teachers are working together on distance learning.

“Our focus now is to have students have access and progress in those activities, while at the same time making gains toward relevant IEP goals, those goals that we can still help students achieve,” said Kevin Kirst, director of special education for the county schools.

Stephanie Hicks, chairwoman of the special education advisory committee in Albemarle County and a parent of a child with special needs, encouraged the school system at a recent board meeting to start planning for when students in special education return to in-person school.

The schools already expect a loss of learning and skills during the summer months, but with the abrupt closure, Hicks said teachers and staff should be prepared for more behavioral and executive function issues as students with disabilities get back to listening and following directions.

“We have to help prepare these students,” Hicks said. “For some of them, it may be like starting school for the very first time.”


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