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Will Remote Learning Leave Special Education Students Behind?

By Kayla Archer-Buckley, Staff Reporter

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Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

“It’s unchartered territory,” stated Cheree Olds, Neptune Township Special Education teacher. Special education teachers have been left in the dark with no plan of action to tend to their students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no official instruction from the U.S Department of Education, special education teachers find themselves struggling to provide adequate instruction with the recent transition to remote instruction. 

On March 18 New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy called for the immediate closing of all public and private schools in the state, causing the 1.4 million public and private school students to transition to remote learning. 

Of the total student population in New Jersey, 17.66 percent of these students are in special education classes as of October 2018, according to the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. Remote learning could pose a huge challenge to special education students. Most special education students rely on interactive learning and visual cues.

Many teachers and parents have expressed concerns about remote learning and a viable solution has not been found. 

“They’re going to lose the structure that we had in place, a lot of them struggle with self-regulating, we have structures in place in the classroom to support them throughout the different activities. At home they won’t have this structure,” stated Elaine Buckley, Neptune Township Special Education teacher. 

Structure plays a big role when it comes to teaching students with special needs. Special education teachers design their classrooms specifically to fit the needs of their children, and remote learning poses a threat to this. 

“My classroom is set up for children with autism, I have the lights covered for my hypersensitive students, I have different stations in the room and different areas for each student,” stated Oretha Bennet, Trenton Township Special Education Teacher and Leader.

“I usually do a lot of hands-on activities; I can’t do that with remote learning. In math, they use manipulatives and visuals. The students are 3rd and 4th graders by age, but I have a student that performs at a Kindergarten level, it’s going to be difficult, some parents have two jobs, and now they’ll have to juggle another one. I gave parents a take-home schedule with frequent breaks for the children. All I can provide is repetition and reinforce skills that the students were working on before we left,” stated Olds.

Teachers have also expressed concerns about the lack of instruction they’ve received. There are currently no specific guidelines in place for special education teachers to follow during this period of remote instruction. 

Buckley stated that in her school district, Neptune Township, general education packets have been designed for each subject. The problem with this is that a 5th-grade student in special education may not perform at the same level as a 5th-grade student in general education classes.

“I started making my own packets for each child but was told that the district would send out work. My kids might not be able to do that work,” said Olds. “I know my students and I know that I need to differentiate instruction for my students.” 

In a classroom that caters to students with special needs, the teachers know that each student is on a different level. 

“We go by IEP’s, the individual education plan so for each kid it’s different. It depends on their level and skills,” stated Annmarie Harriot, a staff member at a private special education school in New Jersey.

Even when it comes to finding regular course work, special education teachers often need to modify instructions to ensure that their students are able to understand it. 

“The majority of the students are reading 2-3 grade levels below their actual grade, which makes it difficult to help them grasp grade-level material. I have to constantly modify or differentiate instructions to find a way of ensuring they understand it,” stated Bennet.

The New Jersey Department of Education advises each district to keep in contact with parents and members of the IEP team to help special needs students cope with remote learning, but until teachers receive clear instruction on what to do they’re advised to be creative when it comes to reaching out to their students and to continue differentiating coursework. 

“We know what to do but we want to make sure we’re following the guidelines too. Right now, we’re just depending on each other,” Olds stated.

There are currently no confirmed reopen dates for any schools in New Jersey, meaning remote learning could extend until the end of the semester. 

“I’m worried my students will regress, they’re going to lose a lot of the skills we taught them and have been working on. Already parents have expressed concerns about their children’s ability to stay structured when it comes to schoolwork,” shared Buckley.

“My parents don’t know the curriculum for Everyday Math, they don’t know how to teach it the way it’s supposed to be taught. I can’t put that on the parents, I wouldn’t even put that on the substitutes,” said Olds.