Uncharted Territory: Teaching Special Ed Amid COVID-19

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Special education during COVID-19. Photo credit: Nick Amoscato / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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OPINION

This personal essay is part of WhoWhatWhy’s ongoing series on the challenges and opportunities the coronavirus pandemic poses for the US education system on all levels.

My name is Brooke L. Watts, and I am a special education inclusion teacher at one of the larger school districts in the Dallas area. As an inclusion teacher, my role is to go into the classes of special needs students and provide support where they need it, as determined by parents and school administrators in the child’s “individualized education program.” 

I have been an educator for 12 years, and I can honestly say that trying to provide educational support to special education students during remote learning in the spring was one of the most challenging and stressful things that I have had to do in a long time. Things became so stressful that I had a hard time sleeping, and I would often wake up with headaches or pain in my neck and shoulders. Some days I wouldn’t even log into work in order to protect my mental and emotional health.  

Related: ‘Desperate’ Families, Empty Classrooms for Kids With Special Needs

The students on my caseload ranged from needing extra time to complete assignments to needing assistance going to the restroom. I was expected to provide the same level of supplementary support to this wide array of learning levels online as I would in person on campus — but without the proper resources or technology. For example, how was I supposed to provide online support for a student who is color blind or visually impaired? What about my students who have intellectual disabilities? What about my students who require manipulatives or other hands-on devices? These were just a few of the questions that I had — with little to no help from those giving directives.

I also faced the challenge of little to no response or help from classroom teachers. As a special education teacher, I do not have access to the Gradebook or whatever platform teachers are using to deliver their instruction. However, when I would request access to the Gradebook or learning platform (such as Google Classroom), I was often met with strong resistance or no response at all. Not having access to these things made it difficult to gauge what type of assistance the kids on my caseload needed. I did not know what type of assignments my students were doing, what grades they were making, or if they were doing any work at all.

It was also expected that I contact the parent(s) of every single kid on my caseload at least three times a week. I found that almost half of the students on my caseload either did not have a working phone number or did not have the technology to do online learning. After a while, many parents got annoyed with the continuous calls, emails, or texts, and either stopped responding or just said everything was fine. I also found that many parents did not know how to assist their special needs child, so they rationalized the child not doing any work at all on the basis of the child’s disability. In spite of all of this, I was still expected by campus leadership to continue contacting parents numerous times each week, and was reprimanded when I decided to scale back to one call and one email or text a week.

In addition, I was expected to keep a daily electronic log of my interactions with each student, which might not have been so annoying if there were one log per student. Instead, there was one log for parent contact on one website. Then, there was a different log for daily student interaction that needed to be filled out through Google Docs. Then, we had to fill out goal progression and progress reports on a totally different website. Every time we emailed something we had to copy a long list of people, and sometimes those people would ask why certain information was or was not included in the message. Leaders could not agree on which documents, platforms, or important information we needed to utilize in order to do our jobs.

Everything was a big, fat, stressful mess, and I was not looking forward to school starting again in August. I was not sure which scenario would be worse: distance learning or physically being in the building.

Now that we have started the new school year, I can honestly say that things are just as stressful and unclear as they were last spring.

I thought that over the summer the district would have come up with a thoughtful plan to make teaching remotely less tense, but instead they decided to launch a brand-new teaching platform for the whole district. In addition, the special education department decided to implement new programs and apps that we still do not have access to even after the third week of school. All of this only adds to the stress and problems from last year and the fear that we might catch the virus from a colleague on campus.   

Despite all of these changes, I have not seen any that actually benefit the teachers or the kids we serve.

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