Image via Boston Public Schools
“I feel like as parents we are not being heard enough when it comes to our special needs kids.”
As schools across the state decide what the fall semester is going to look like, teachers, parents and advocates are hoping that some students with significant special needs can be considered for in-person learning.
While many have adapted well to remote learning, others have faced serious regression, and have had trouble transitioning to an online curriculum. For these students, a return to in-person learning, at least part-time, may be essential to continued educational progress.
Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released guidelines stating that “students with disabilities, particularly preschool-age students and those with significant and complex needs, should be prioritized for receiving in-person instruction during the 2020-2021 school year.” They apply even if schools are operating in hybrid or remote models, and include options for one-on-one instruction and in-person therapies, social skills groups, and Applied Behavior Analysis services.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association subsequently released its own reopening proposals, which also asked for special consideration for special needs populations. Specifically, they requested clear masks or face shields to be made available in classrooms with deaf or hard of hearing students, and for gloves and gowns to be given to teachers who engage in diapering and toileting.
For those students who have faced regression, who have had difficulty transitioning online, or who are participating in certain activities—learning to pronounce letters, reading Braille, hand-over-hand instruction—that are difficult or impossible to conduct online, teachers and advocates agreed that there should be an opportunity to return in-person.
“Are there a handful of kids that would be better served in an impressive setting? Absolutely,” said Nicole Mullen, a high school special educator and inclusion teacher at Boston Arts Academy. “I do think that there is a population of students that would benefit from smaller in-person learning, particularly some of our kids… that may be non-verbal or that, you know, need touch… kids who didn’t engage digitally or were unable to engage for some reason.”
Chantei Alves, an early childhood inclusion teacher at the Young Achievers School, said she had one student who had been blossoming in the classroom and had made tremendous progress, and the transition to Zoom and the loss of in-person social interaction was especially difficult for him.
“He’s one of those students that, when he comes in, wants to go run over and talk to his best friend about what he ate for dinner and what he did last night. That’s harder to do on Zoom,” she said.
At a recent BPS meeting for students with disabilities, one parent of a student with autism said she was disappointed in the meeting and what she saw as the lack of planning by the department of special education.
“Virtual learning is not appropriate for our autistic kids. It doesn’t work… it’s causing regression for them,” she said. “I feel like as parents we are not being heard enough when it comes to our special needs kids.”
Another parent said her autistic son had regressed so much over the past few months that he can barely leave the house anymore. She was concerned enough that she asked if it would be possible for him to transfer to another district so he could take classes fully in-person.
Kathleen Amaral, the Advocacy Alliance Coordinator for Arc of Massachusetts, which works to enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is the parent of a student considered “high needs.” She said that remote learning did not work for her son, who has a developmental disability that prevents him from speaking.
“It’s been, you know, I hate to say useless, because I know the effort has been put forth by the teachers… but it doesn’t translate to something real to him. He sees it as a computer screen. And he doesn’t want to, he can’t sit, he can’t attend that long of a session,” she said.
Amaral said her son craves the routine and social interaction of in-person learning, and that she is hopeful that small steps, such as one-on-one tutoring or small group sessions, can be used to provide some sort of routine.
“Most of the feedback that I’ve heard from many of the families that I’ve been in touch with is that it’s just not working. It’s so unfortunate. People worry about the regression and the loss of skills that their child has, you know, the reality of losing the skills that they had been building up over the course of the year,” Amaral added.
Despite the challenges that remote learning has presented, Amaral isn’t sure if she will send her own son back to school in-person in the fall, if that’s even an option. Like many other teachers and parents, she is concerned that most institutions are unprepared to implement safe in-person learning. She’s not alone.
“I just don’t understand or see how in such a short period of time, you would be ready for in-person,” Mullen said. “Many of our classrooms that are designated for students with disabilities, particularly kids that are not in the general ed classrooms, are disproportionately smaller, they’re less ventilated, they do not have windows.”
Mullen said she doesn’t feel like Boston Public Schools have really thought about how to implement all of the necessary steps to safely bring students, and specifically special needs students, back in-person. As one example, she said there haven’t been necessary building improvements or walkthroughs to determine how many students can fit in each classroom.
Alves echoed this sentiment, and said that she feels that the sanitation in her building isn’t adequate, that there aren’t enough custodians to thoroughly clean everything, and that she doesn’t believe the district has the funding to sufficiently prepare for in-person learning.
Alves and Mullen both said that most of their special needs students had adapted well—or in some cases, done even better—with online learning. Both teachers have hosted social Zooms so their students can have time to chat with fellow classmates beyond the virtual classroom. Still, Mullen teaches students with emotional disabilities, attention difficulties, and autism, and said she is concerned that if her students return in-person, socially distanced and with masks, they will completely lose even the level of social interaction they were able to have on Zoom.
“Kids don’t learn unless they can bounce ideas off of each other or sit in a small group, or, you know, look at my work,” Mullen said. “Those are all social moments that happen in teaching and learning that’s not going to be able to happen.”
Alves and Mullen said they support small-group learning for certain students who had negative experiences with online learning. Nevertheless, many teachers remain concerned about exposure to coronavirus, particularly from certain students who might be medically exempt from wearing masks, who will have a hard time social distancing, or who require physical contact from teachers.
“Personally, I would go back, but I would prefer to go back if it was for inclusion students or ELL or students who truly needed to be in an in-person setting,” Alves said. “I’m not married. I don’t have kids. So I’m not coming home and infecting other people… that is not the case for most teachers in Boston Public Schools.”
Though Alves isn’t particularly scared for her own safety, she recognizes that students and teachers, with disabilities or not, may face challenges keeping everyone safe in a classroom setting.
“I’m a teacher who’s already lost a student,” Alves said. “He passed away when he was 8 years old and I cannot lose another one. I cannot lose another one because I may have forgotten to wipe something down… I can’t imagine the weight of that, and I can’t imagine the weight of the family who sent their child to school trusting that it was safe.”
At the time of this writing, Boston Public Schools intends to use a hybrid learning plan in the fall for all students. That will create two groups of students, the first of which would have class on-site Monday and Tuesday, and the second of which would have class on-site Thursday and Friday. Each group would attend remote learning the other three weekdays, and Wednesday would be used for cleaning and sanitation.
In a BPS meeting for special needs families, administrators said there was a possibility that certain special education classes could meet in-person, full-time if students and faculty are able to social distance and have appropriate PPE. But they said this outcome is only likely if many parents choose to keep their children home, and classroom space is freed up.
DESE’s guidelines, meanwhile, emphasize the need to obtain data and information from parents on how remote learning worked for their children in the spring, in order to form an idea of who can benefit the most from in-person education in the fall.
In a BPS survey of families of students with disabilities, only 20% of respondents preferred in-person education, while 40% preferred blended and 33% wanted to remain fully online. But of the 20% of respondents who would prefer to return fully in-person, some are desperately worried about the consequences of their children continuing to learn remotely.
“I think the best-case scenario is that each district does a lot of inventorying about what they can do safely, taking into account all students’ needs and then making steps to put something in place,” Amaral said.