The disruptions to public education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are challenging enough for student, teachers, and parents. But what if your child needs additional supports to help them with a learning challenge, behavioral issue, or physical impairment? How are schools serving them during a period of remote instruction?
“They’ve been amazing... with their support,” says Ashley Martin, who opted to enroll her two children in Jessamine County Schools’ virtual academy this fall. Her son, who is in third grade, is hearing impaired.
“Rex receives speech therapy and occupational therapy through the school,” says Martin. “It’s tough because those are therapies that are best done face to face, and we haven’t been able to do that. “
Now Rex gets his therapy virtually using a laptop computer and special earphones. Martin says Rex’s therapists also delivered a bag of tools and games that he can use during his sessions, and scheduled his speech and occupational therapy work concurrently so as to limit the amount of computer screen time he faces each day.
Martin says she thinks both Rex and her daughter Lila, who is in eighth grade, have continued to learn throughout the remote instruction of last spring and now. While Lila requires little support with her studies, Martin says she sits with Rex throughout his school day to make sure he stays focused.
“One of the biggest challenges of being a stay-at-home mom and what a friend of mine calls their ‘education supervisor’ is finding a balance,” says Martin. “I know that my kids need me to be their mom first, and it can damage our relationship if I push the education supervisor position and put that in front of the mom job.”
Making Remote Learning Work for All Students
At the end of the last academic year, many schools surveyed parents to get their feedback on how teachers could improve remote instruction. Carol Ann Morrison, director of the Kentucky School for the Blind and Kentucky School for the Deaf, says the parents they canvassed requested a single online platform for instruction to reduce technical challenges for both children and the adults trying to help them. For visually impaired students, teachers prepared class materials in Braille print and delivered them to students at home.
“The staff at both the School for the Blind and School for the Deaf have done a great job of making sure that they provide a rigorous and high quality instruction for students during this pandemic even though the learning environment is a bit different,” Morrison says.
Morrison’s schools are also attentive to the emotional needs of their students while they’re at home. She says teachers from the school for the deaf connect with their students in the evenings and use American Sign Language to virtually read bedtime stories to them. She says they’re also providing online classes for parents who want to learn how to better support their children during this extended period of at-home learning.
Ensuring that all public school students with learning challenges maintain their academic progress is the responsibility of Gretta Hylton, associate commissioner at the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning. She says students with disabilities should have the same opportunities to learn as any other student, even during a pandemic.
“COVID changed the world for everyone – all of us are adjusting to this new normal,” says Hylton. “It’s really been an opportunity for us to think outside the box… Districts and parents are working together, and they’re communicating, and sharing resources, innovative ideas, and promising practices for students with disabilities.”
Hylton says some students who learn under an individualized educational plan or IEP thrive with remote learning, while others may find it more challenging. It’s also difficult for parents who may have to juggle a job and tend to a child or multiple children who are learning remotely. At the same time, school districts are stretched thin by providing technology and teaching resources to students learning at home.
“Time is probably the most critical component. How are teachers juggling all of the needs when some districts are doing virtual and face-to-face?” says Hylton. “And as parents, how do we continue to work and help students with their homework and juggle all of the demands of day to day?”
Allison Slone knows those struggles from both sides. She is a special education teacher at McBrayer Elementary School in Morehead, and she has a 13-year-old son with dyslexia. She does remote instruction with six classes of students during the day, and then helps her son with his studies in the evening.
“It’s very mentally exhausting,” says Slone. “I worry about my students, I worry about if I’m doing enough, I worry about my colleagues… I feel at times more tired than I do in a general day of in-person teaching because it just takes a mental toll on you.”
Despite the additional stress, Slone says teachers across the state are doing amazing and innovative things to stay connected to their students. In addition to regular class sessions and course work, Slone says teachers FaceTime with students individually.
“I have daily social-emotional check ins where they fill out Google forms and tell me how they’re feeling that day and what is going on with them,” says Slone. “That helps me to know if I need to touch base with a kid again and reach out to their parents. “
Not all students may be forthcoming about the challenges they face. For example, teachers at Cardinal Valley Elementary School in Lexington didn’t know Ethan Rodriguez lacked internet access at home until they saw the fourth grader sitting in the school’s parking lot doing his class work on the laptop the district had provided him. So, the school took steps to get internet hotspots for Ethan and other students who need them to be able to study at home, according to Cardinal Valley teacher Michelle Armstrong. She says that connectivity ensures her students can participate in her art classes.
“When they come to my Zoom class, I want them to relax, I want them to have a good time,” says Armstrong.
How Parents Can Handle the Extra Challenges of Virtual Instruction
Patience and self-care are helping Ebony Cooper navigate the challenges of at-home learning with her two daughters. The family starts their days with prayer, affirmations, and exercise.
“My youngest, she does a yoga segment or something before her class starts,” says Cooper. “My oldest, she goes on a walk… just to get ready, to be energized.”
Virtual instruction has forced Cooper to make a number of adjustments to her daily schedule. She gets up at 4:30 every morning to exercise and then shuttles between her work with clients at the fitness studio she owns in Lexington and going home to check on her daughters. As hard as it is for parents, Cooper says she realizes the pandemic disruptions and virtual instruction are difficult for her children, too.
“I believe the hardest part for them is the lack of social interaction having to be at home,” says Cooper. “My oldest daughter, she was rally excited about going to high school, and so her not being able to have that experience is heartbreaking.”
Above all, Cooper encourages parents to have patience with themselves and their children. Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander agrees with that advice.
“It is about taking time and taking space, and not expecting yourself to be perfect – no one is,” he says.
Friedlander says it’s important for parents to model good self-care and show their children productive ways to handle stress and anger.
“You’re going to be their best teacher, you’re going to be their best [role] model,” says the secretary. “Name your feelings and talk about them, and make sure that you give your children a safe space to talk about their feelings with you.”
The uncertainty caused by a global pandemic is likely to trigger anxiety in people young and old, according to Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist in Louisville. He says the dangers posed by the virus and not knowing how long restrictions may last can cause people who may have never felt anxious before to experience the heightened emotion.
To help parents and children cope with their COVID-related anxieties, Chapman has developed a series of simple steps based on the letters in the word fight. He says F stands for focus.
“We can’t control how long the pandemic will last. We can’t control what may or may not happen in the future, but we can focus on our present,” says Chapman. “So we can see what’s happening around us, ground ourselves in the present moment, and focus on the things we can control.”
I is for identifying negative thoughts that can fuel strong emotions. Chapman says those can be replaced by G – generating more flexible thoughts or different ways of viewing things. H stands for highlighting adaptive behaviors such as good self-care such as exercise and fitness regiments. Finally T stands for teaching others these same techniques to help them deal with the stress and anxiety they feel in their own lives.
Schools Support Students and Parents Through Difficult Times
Pandemic-related stressors can cause a range of behavioral changes in children as well as adults. Psychologist Anthony Zipple says to watch for changes in sleep patterns, increased irritability, or a change in demeanor, such as a normally outgoing child becoming more withdrawn. He says mental health concerns among Kentucky’s youth are not new.
“Even before the pandemic, we had rising rates of depression and anxiety in kids,” says Zipple. “As many as 10 or 12 percent of children in the United States qualify for a diagnosis of depression, and COVID has nothing but amplified that.”
Zipple is part of the BOUNCE coalition, which works in 16 Kentucky counties to build awareness about adverse childhood experiences and helps kids learn to be more resilient. The organization also trains teachers, school administrators, lunchroom workers, bus drivers, and community members how to recognize and reach out to children who may need help.
But what about when learning is done virtually and school staff don’t have daily, face-to-face contact with students? What’s worse, some of those students may live in dysfunctional home environments that present their own dangers
Lori Price, the coordinator of student/family support services for the Pulaski County Schools, says her teachers are taking extra steps to maintain regular contact with their students and provide them with positive behavioral interventions through virtual means.
“We know before the pandemic hit that if a child was not healthy both socially or emotionally, we didn’t find academic success,” says Price. “We’re finding the same thing within learning from home.”
In some cases, Price’s staff will schedule in-person visits with students if there are particular concerns. But she says their outreach efforts aren’t limited to children.
“We have really tried to support our parents, and teaching them how to set up a structure, how to be consistent, even as simple as finding a designated area for schoolwork to occur,” says Price. “We have call-in parent support groups to address things like technology that are concerns, to talk about how to set behavioral interventions and reinforcements in the home.”
If negative behaviors do occur, Zipple says instead of resorting to punishment, adults should find ways to be more helpful to their child. He also encourages adults, whether parents or teachers, to ask the student “What’s going on with you?” rather than the more negative “What’s wrong with you?”
Until schools fully reopen, special education teacher Allison Slone says the best way for children to be healthy and well is for parents to be healthy and well.
“It’s really important right now as teachers that we also connect with our parents more than we ever have,” says Slone, “and making sure that they know they can reach out to us.“