Faith Apel was splitting her time on Monday between her own work on the computer and helping her 8-year-old son, Beau, with his math assignment. Full of restless energy, Beau was alternating between positions: Sitting in the chair. Sitting on the nearby bed. Standing up. Jumping on the bed. Gazing through the window.
All the while, Apel was patiently walking him through the problems, doing her best to keep Beau focused. Sometimes, she’d explain the procedure herself. Other times, she’d start a tutorial for her son to watch before switching her attention back to her own work.
Beau receives special education services for reading and writing. Prior to the pandemic, he would mostly sit in general education classes, but he also would meet with a special education teacher for 30 minutes a day. He’d also get individualized help in his classes.
Since school districts moved to the new distance-learning model in light of the pandemic, the task of helping Beau get through the day has fallen somewhat into the hands of his family members. On the other side of the coin, though, special education teachers have been trying to find ways to adapt and help their students learn from afar.
Apel usually sets aside an hour in the mornings to work with Beau directly. Her daughter, Brynn, 11, also helps Beau when Faith can’t get away from work. On Monday, Brynn was sitting at the same table as Beau, working on her own assignments. Although Beau knows how to do the material, Apel said he struggles with reading instructions in order to find out what he's supposed to do.
“I definitely think there’s an academic cost; I think his special ed teacher was able to provide him with support that I don’t know, necessarily, how to do,” Apel said. “He pretty much needs to be one-on-one all the time because he gets so frustrated.”
Special education covers a lot of ground. Students who qualify for those services have what’s known as an IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan. Essentially, that means that the needs of one student in special education can be entirely different from the next.
The Minnesota Department of Education lists 13 categories that fit under the umbrella term “special education,” such as blind-visually impaired, emotional or behavioral disorders and developmental delays.
Like Beau, many students who receive special education services take part in general-education classes.
“We want our special education kids to feel just like a general education kid as much as possible, so we’re trying to subject them to as much content as they’re able to, based on their needs, ” Jason Schneider, a special education teacher at John Marshall High School, said.
There are more than 18,000 students in the Rochester school district. Of that total, a little more than 3,000 qualify for services under one or more of those 13 categories.
Some students, like Beau, need a fair amount of individualized time. However, whether special-ed students, in general, need more help from their parents during distance learning than a general-education student is hard to nail down.
“It depends on the student … bottom line,” Schneider said. “That’s the blanket statement for all special education.”
Regardless what the situation may be like for any given student, schools have tried to adapt as much as possible.
Schneider said for some students, they sent home large boxes of items for them to interact with. He used the example of a student who may have some goals with cooking. In that case, they might send some cooking materials home with the student as part of their coursework.
Working with students with behavioral-emotional issues over the internet is more challenging. In some of those cases, Schneider said he would have them practice their skills with their family members and record the process.
When the pandemic hit and school districts initiated distance-learning, the special education team at John Marshall set up a website to help parents stay up-to-date with the school. Schneider said doing so has opened a range of possibilities for them, and they plan to continue using it once students return to school.
Austin Public Schools special education teacher Paula Ziems has a caseload of 13 students who are on the autistic spectrum. While one of her students has excelled in the new format, she also has had students who have struggled. She said there definitely have been students who have "checked out" during this time of distance-learning.
She's been doing all she can, though, to help students stay engaged. She'll email them. Depending on the student, she might text them. She'll make calls to touch base and see if there's anything she can do to help them more.
“For many of my students, change is a challenge,” Ziems said. “I have students who have really struggled with not being in the classroom....I think the thing I’ve learned is every student is faced with something different during this distance-learning time.”