BELLVILLE -- Even in the best of times meeting the needs of special education students can pose a myriad of challenges for educators.
But when the pandemic forced stay-at-home remote learning, augmented by summer breaks, those challenges intensified. Critical in-person, face-to-face contact was lost.
For teachers and their special-needs students at Clear Fork Valley Local Schools, a 21-month rollercoaster odyssey of rebuilding eroded skills continues.
Because schools have reopened for several months some might assume that all has returned to normal. Not so for students impacted by attention deficit disorder, emotional disturbances, autism spectrum-related issues or other learning disabilities.
“Remote learning and summer vacation were key setbacks. The start of the current school year has been like starting all over,” said Allison Hahn, a special education teacher at Clear Fork Valley High School. “It was very hard to be away from kids and know they were struggling.
“Some students have mental and emotional issues. Some are depressed or displaying anxiety. In my 26 years of teaching this is the most severe I’ve seen it – bullying, not knowing how to interact. Kids couldn’t practice social skills while at home.”
Hahn and other Clear Fork special education teachers are coordinating with parents as they work to help their students catch up. For some kids, that may be achieved by the end of the school year; for others, it may not.
It all began on March 16, 2020 when Superintendent Janice Wyckoff announced that schools would close and staff would go online to teach via Zoom and Google Classroom.
Technology was in place, up and ready to go. Portable WiFi hotspots were distributed to homes that did not have internet access.
“The district did a good job of preparing us at the middle school,” said special education teacher Nicole Traxler.
“Preparation was put in place very well,” Hahn said. “We had knowledge of what was going to happen. As a district, we were very proactive.”
Sarah Vermillion, a seventh-grade special education teacher who was new to the district last year, agreed.
“Coming from another district, I could see Clear Fork was far ahead in its preparation,” she said.
The teaching staff worked hand-in-hand with the administration and support staff to implement online instruction.
But while technology served the remote-learning needs of typical students, the situation was much different for special- needs kids.
“Special education students couldn’t do the work on their own,” Traxler said. “As teachers, our work went from an 8-hour day to a 24-hour day as we tried our best to help.”
In some instances, parents were at work. Teachers took on a more intensive support role as de facto parent, friend or nurse.
“A lot of high school students got jobs to help their families or babysit younger siblings,” said secondary special education teacher Amy Cox. “It was very much a Catch 22.”
“It turned into 24/7,” Hahn said. “We wanted to be available, even on weekends. We gave students a Google phone number to call us.
“We had a lot of contact with general education teachers about individual students. Sometimes it was like, ‘Do you know what’s going on? The student’s computer camera is on, but all we can see is the ceiling.’”
Kathy Israel, a sixth-grade special education teacher, cited “lots of extra help from general education staff,” but said for many special-needs kids “a larger educational gap was created.”
Middle school special education teacher Sonia Kelley reverted to a more traditional method of reaching students.
“Some students could do work on the computer, but most could not,” Kelley said. “I would deliver homework in paper packets to homes, then go back to pick it up.”
On Feb. 16 students had the option of returning to school, which some did, or continuing to work from home, which others did, for the balance of the school year. Then came the 10-week summer break.
When all students returned to their classrooms in August the special education staff ramped up its efforts to help their students recover skills that had eroded.
“Classroom management has been an issue,” Traxler said. “Some students had forgotten how to act in the classroom. Face- to-face social skills had diminished. Behavioral issues resulted.”
Teachers now are working overtime to emphasize what is expected in their classes while assisting students in keeping track of what is due. Important information also is posted on an online media platform so parents can help their children keep on top of their work.
“We all feel like we’re trying to catch up,” said Ryan Vermillion, special education coordinator. “There’s a lot of tension about not having enough time to prepare for state testing. But we’re all working together.”
All that was lost during stay-at-home and summer months won’t be recovered overnight, but measurable progress is being made.
“I’m just so thankful,” Traxler said, “to have my kids back in person.”
Knox Educational Service Center
Clear Fork Valley Local Schools is a client district of the Knox Educational Service Center in Mount Vernon. Knox ESC develops, implements, and operates cooperative, shared educational services for Clear Fork Valley, as well as the Centerburg, Danville, East Knox, Fredericktown, and Mount Vernon City school districts.