Expert Viewpoint

How to Best Support Students with Special Needs During School Closures

With the right communication tools and best practices, we can still serve all of our students.

At Lakes & Bridges Charter School, where I teach, 100 percent of our student population has been diagnosed with either dyslexia or a specific learning disability related to reading or math. When the pandemic hit, we were in a rush to adopt remote learning for our specific student population, and we needed a reliable system to maintain ongoing family communication. We also had to make sure our students continued to get the proper support, both academically and emotionally. 

As a teacher and technology director, I have certainly missed the face-to-face connection with all of my students. I had contact with all of our students in the building every day. Not being able to assist each student with their individual struggles or explain a concept in a hands-on way has been quite frustrating. However, everyone has worked very hard to make our transition as easy as possible.

Here’s how our school handled the need for rapid communication and remote learning, along with some tips to help your district meet the needs of all learners, even the most vulnerable ones.

Quick and Continuous Communication

When the pandemic hit, we had to move right into distance learning, and we had to notify families immediately. Rather than using multiple ways to communicate and get the message out, we chose to use Bloomz only for communication to ensure we could reach parents right away. Although we've used various communication apps in the past, Bloomz has become our only choice even for making urgent announcements. 

Since school closed, our principal posts a daily greeting and a community challenge for our students. Parents use Bloomz to send pictures of student work back to teachers. We use our class feeds to share weekly overviews and newsletters, and to share our group Zoom invites in a secure location. Teachers have one place to post updates and parents know where to check for them. 

For the most part, the students have had a tough time learning virtually, since they heavily rely on face-to-face interaction with their teachers. They have had to go from a small group, individualized instruction to 1-to-1 device-driven virtual meetings and PDFs to complete their work — which has been a challenge. However, everyone has worked hard to make this time as painless as possible. I called all my students often and sent them cards and small things via snail mail. We also established a virtual hang-out time twice a week where we could see each other and talk about whatever came to mind, not school. Coming together, troubleshooting, and planning for the future has made a significant difference.

Taking Care of Yourself During this Trying Time

As I mentioned above, I miss seeing my students every day. Trying to reach them and help them learn or review information virtually is much harder than classroom teaching. In our regular setting, we can detach and walk away at the end of the day. Detachment has become more difficult, since my classroom is now on my living room couch or dining room table. Once the time changed and it stayed light outside, I spent many afternoons working in the yard. I planted and tended a new garden. I find yard work very cathartic.

At the beginning of the closures, I was working 60+ hours, seven days a week. Then I hit the proverbial brick wall at about the fourth week and had to make some changes. I try not to work after 6 PM Monday through Friday and not at all on Saturdays. Since the fourth week, I’ve just been stopping and moving the leftover things from that day's to-do list to the next day. Sometimes I started earlier in the day and could get things caught up before the rest of the school "woke up," but I’m a morning person so this wasn't a chore.

Best Practices for Staying Connected

Given these obstacles, here are some tips I've learned when it comes to supporting special needs students during school closures.

  • Check-in with each student daily. You can do this by phone, chat, or video if possible to get a read on how your students are feeling.

  • Provide as many support options as possible. These can include online platforms to support their individual needs, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and video.

  • Be available to parents for questions and suggestions.

  • Schedule face-to-face interactions when you can. We all need human contact. 

  • Send out “snail mail” for encouragement. Showing your students that you took the time to write to them goes a long way.

  • Define office hours. Be clear and consistent with your availability and leave yourself time to unplug.

Should the pandemic continue to keep students out of school, we’ll come up with different plans to ensure our most vulnerable students receive the services they need, both at home and at school. Creating and implementing a detailed remote learning strategy for the future is essential to serving all students, no matter what learning challenges they face.

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