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Special Education in the Pandemic

Sharing strategies and best practices for supporting all types of learners in complex times
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In remote or hybrid learning environments where direct, in-person supports aren’t an option, what can teachers do to continue to support students with special needs — and how can that information be widely shared so that other teachers benefit?

According to Khalya Hopkins, an administrator with the New York City Department of Education, and HGSE lecturer Rhonda Bondie, there are plenty of teachers finding good solutions, but leaders and researchers must find ways to encourage them to document their best practices at this time to inform how we teach in the future.

“We need to find out what is going on, and make successful practices more visible in the field,” says Bondie. “We have to recognize that some people are doing really well, and this can help us untangle and represent the complexities of the problem so we can see it and start to adjust.”

Based on feedback they’ve heard so far from teachers in the field, Hopkins and Bondie suggest some immediate instructional responses classroom teachers can implement in remote and hybrid classrooms to create pandemic-safe learning environments that serve all learners.

Design authentic learning assessments that accurately monitor comprehension.

Remote or hybrid learning does present constraints to traditional instruction. Yet it also presents teachers with alternative possibilities to traditional methods that may, in fact, be more accessible and accurate. For example, while assessing and identifying students with special needs is currently best done in-person, a remote or hybrid setting may make it easier to authentically gauge learning.

"We need to find out what is going on, and make successful practices more visible in the field. We have to recognize that some people are doing really well, and this can help us untangle and represent the complexities of the problem so we can see it and start to adjust." – Rhonda Bondie

In a remote setting, teachers have tools, like a digital poll, that can be used to easily check for a deeper understanding in a casual setting, making it easier to keep track of who is falling behind and needs extra support. Teachers can also record lessons, creating a customized repository of guides, practice problems, and tutorials that can support students based on individual needs.

Streamline learning platforms and technology.

Technology and different learning platforms have become a way of capturing student attention and engaging them in learning. But Hopkins cautions educators to think wisely about what they’re using as different platforms and apps have different interfaces and can create more confusion. “Using seven platforms even puts students who don’t have an IEP at a disadvantage. Teachers must coordinate with each other, find uniformity, and leverage that when implementing the use of technology,” she says. “However, I really think teachers are being more mindful of what they’re asking students and why.”

Both Hopkins and Bondie point out, however, that internet access has been a consistent problem for students during the pandemic. As a result, educators should also have strategies and means for communicating with students and families that don’t rely solely on internet connection.

Be an active co-teacher and collaborator.

Often, inclusive classrooms include a general education teacher and a special education teacher. However, in remote instruction, educators can often get bogged down in technology, focusing on moderating its use rather than deploying it in a lesson. “Both teachers should always be in the role of a teacher, not an assistant or chat moderator unless there’s an instructional purpose,” Bondie says. If small groups or pre-teaching was an intervention used to support a student pre-pandemic, continue to use the co-teaching model to deliver that intervention. Paraprofessionals should be instructional collaborators.

Reflect on time management and resource distribution.

Time is a scarce resource in an environment where so much of it has been lost to the pandemic. “When we went remote, we were so busy trying to complete compliance documents that the pedagogy took a backseat,” says Hopkins. “Growth and change take time, but we’re not allowing for that or talking about it with policymakers to determine realistic timelines for improvement.” As a result, educators need to be thinking critically about what services students are receiving, taking care not to over or under serve a student. Hopkins reminds educators that for a service to be effective, it needs to help the student learn and grow.

Use remote technology to facilitate family engagement and advocacy in IEP planning.

In the past, caregiver schedules didn’t always align with the school’s schedule. Now, with remote technology, IEP meetings are more accessible as caregivers now have the option to join the meetings remotely.

Key Takeaways

  • Find ways to share and connect with other educators. School leaders should highlight and share the work teachers are doing in their classrooms.
  • Redirect your view from constraints to opportunities — in what ways does this new normal allow me to make curriculum more accessible to my students?
  • Remember that as much as technology can make things easier, internet access is still a problem for many. Explore alternate means of communication like using message boards outside the school building, public radio, television, and the mail.

Usable Knowledge

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