Special education teachers take up challenges in virtual learning

Special education teachers have had to adjust more than most in trying to deliver lessons...
Special education teachers have had to adjust more than most in trying to deliver lessons virtually.(Live 5 News)
Updated: Mar. 22, 2021 at 4:57 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Education in 2020 took a hard turn when districts opted into virtual learning.

As the plexiglass barriers went up, the masks were put on and learning went behind a screen. Many students simply had to co-exist with the new modality. However, a one-size fits all approach doesn’t fit every students’ needs, especially those with special needs.

Parents and advocacy groups are somewhat divided on the impacts of this year’s virtual education.

Some special needs students are thriving at home without the distractions or social anxiety associated with the classroom, while others find it nearly impossible to stay focused over Zoom.

Beverly Pilkey is the executive director of exceptional children for the Charleston County School District. She knew her department would have an extra challenge meeting the goals of each child’s Individualized Education Program or IEP.

She says at the beginning of the year they developed a contingency learning plan for each IEP.

“Which was truly looking at: What are the goals we are working on. Will those services be direct or indirect. And with what frequency will they be delivered,” Pilkey said. “All of that was done in collaboration with the entire team in consultation with the parents to make sure we are all on the same page in terms of what the services and support would look like for the students.”

A plan is one thing but putting it into practice is entirely another and there are just some things that can’t be done virtually. Christine Markland is one of the special education teachers at West Ashley High School.

She says physically interacting with students is a big part of teaching and without it she has had to find a work around.

“Parents of my students have become my hands,” Markland said. “We Zoomed and did a number of things prior to starting our instruction back in September. . . so the parents would know what to expect. It has brought a beautiful collaboration with the parents in my classroom in that we are truly all learning together.”

Routine is important for students with special needs, and if an in-person classroom needs to be quarantined because of exposure to COVID, transitioning back to virtual can be disruptive.

Markland says, in-person or virtual, her students stay on the exact same schedule to help keep that routine.

“Every week my students get a packet of work from me and it mirrors exactly what we are going to be doing on and off of Zoom,” Markland said. “My students really wanted paper and pencil because that is what they are used to in the classroom.”

Markland says she has not had any students fall behind but acknowledges there are students who can struggle with virtual learning. Shannon O’Neill is the compliance and autism services coordinator at CCSD.

She says there are mechanisms in place to catch those students.

“We have internal measures – accountability checks if you will. If a student is not making progress, whether it be COVID-related or not, we are required to take a look and see what’s going on,” O’Neill said. “We monitor progress every four and a half weeks, in terms of parents getting a formal report. If we see trends in two reporting periods indicating a student is not making process then that’s where we come back as a team and say, ‘Okay. What do we need to do differently?’”

One of the ways Markland has tried to avoid getting to that point with her students is by keeping lines of communication open. She leaves time in her schedule open for students or parents to Zoom with her and work one-on-one if there are concerns.  Despite the flexibility, she is ready to get back to normal.

“I have learned so much about virtual teaching. I have learned so much about the students and their families, but I am so ready to have everyone back in front of me,” Markland said.

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