While some students will continue to excel despite remote instruction occurring in schools throughout the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a concern among educators that some students may be left behind.
Perhaps the most vulnerable are special education students, who not only rely on schooling for the lesson plans, but also the routine it provides.
In a time when no one can say with certainty when we will return to normalcy — or for that matter what normal will even mean in the coming months — teachers with the Santa Barbara Unified School District are doing their part to bring about consistency and continuity.
Derek Drew has been teaching special education at San Marcos High School for the past 11 years. He serves as a mild to moderate case manager, working mostly with students who are completely included in general education classes. He served as a support teacher in senior English for a number of years and this year has made the shift to biology — which he joked has been a challenge in itself.
“I’m kind of going back to school myself,” Mr. Drew said with a laugh. “I hadn’t taken a biology class in like 30 years.”
Mr. Drew holds individualized education programs, also known as IEPs, for 20 students. Because he serves as a co-teacher, he also helps students in the classes he supports.
“I’m really just working to help support kids, behaviorally, and helping them learn how to learn, essentially,” he said. “You use tactics that support their own learning based on their individual needs.”
Mr. Drew said the past few weeks have been “challenging and scary and nerve-wracking” all at the same time. Educators are well aware that families are struggling financially due to the pandemic and some were already socio-economically disadvantaged before widespread closures and cancellations occurred.
“Those kinds of kids, everybody’s really nervous about how they’re doing,” Mr. Drew said. “That’s an obvious drawback with all this going on.”
One of Mr. Drew’s students has struggled socially over the years, but now as a senior has been able to acclimate himself, and joined together with a group of teachers every day for lunch. That student recently reached out to a teacher and was in tears.
“He said he was going to miss it a lot and it was a really important thing for him,” Mr. Drew said. “We set up a Zoom lunch twice a week, so we’re all going to get together and eat, just like we did at school, to try and help him through it a little bit.”
Shifting to remote learning, also considered flipping the classroom, is not necessarily new, but educators have been forced to adjust quickly due to the mandates and restrictions in place. This concept can work well at the secondary level, as most students are a bit more tech-saavy and others are more independent, Mr. Drew said.
“It’s sort of like office hours and it allows kids to ask questions and figure out if they need help with anything,” he said. “In doing so, it kind of allows for some of our kids with certain accomodations to be able to go through and pause and go back and try and figure out what they’re doing for any one assignment.
“This is sort of forcing change that I think will work well in a traditional setting as well. I think there’s some silver linings in it, for sure.”
Mr. Drew explained that special education can create a co-dependency between teacher and educator. Now, students who need assistance are required to reach out for help, which could turn into a positive moving forward.
“I think that, in a way and for this period of time, is a good thing where all of a sudden they’re responsible for their education,” Mr. Drew said.
Special educators throughout the district have also been using video conference platforms such as Zoom to work in collaboration, sharing ideas and successes while also seeking solutions.
“Our teachers are a hard-working, student-centered, and extremely flexible bunch,” John Schettler, director of special education for the Santa Barbara Unified School District, told the News-Press. “Those traits are crucial during this time as all of this is new and the landscape around social distancing has evolved quickly.”
Mr. Schettler noted that the “vast majority” of students who receive special education services have been able to access general education content, though said there are still students who need more significant support.
“We are using our teachers and other specialists to consult with families and find out how to support their individual needs as best we can,” he said.
“Many of our specialists and therapists will be offering their services through online platforms to students who need them.”
While instruction and learning is continuing, there is a sense of unknown that leaves some educators nervous about the long-term implications of remote learning.
“Someone used the metaphor of ‘we’re building the plane as we fly it,’” Mr. Drew said. “It was a super-quick rollout with some of this stuff. Everybody is really nervous about making sure that kids get what they need, but I think in general it’s not going to really be the same level of education as they got when they were at school each day, because there’s just not enough time to make that happen.
“This is just such crazy, crazy and unprecedented times. And it’s happening all over the country.”