Special education presents special challenges during school closures

Mar 21, 2020

As Dartmouth school staff adjust to a whole new world during the pandemic, Superintendent of Schools Bonny Gifford wants to assure parents and students that they haven’t been forgotten — particularly those in special education.

“Our most powerful strategy is to stay in contact with our kids,” she said. “They need to hear from their teachers and see their faces.”

Teachers are using tools like Zoom and Google classroom to provide extended learning to students, Gifford noted. But the online platform can only do so much; teachers can’t direct lessons as they would in a classroom setting. Gifford said that instead of trying to replicate a school day, the online tools “simply provide enrichment,” as per state guidelines.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has directed all schools in the state to continue to provide equitable educational opportunities for all students.

But parents of special education students want to be sure that their children are not forgotten.

“We understand the concern and the heartache,” said Dartmouth’s Special Education Director Lori Jodoin. “We have not forgotten them.”

About 500 special needs students are enrolled in the Dartmouth schools, Lori said, with varying needs and situations.

Kathleen Amaral, chair of the Dartmouth School Committee and of Dartmouth’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said she would like those state guidelines to be reviewed so that all students receive educational opportunities when remote learning is required.

“We need to look at better ways to do remote learning with the children in special education,” she said.

Her concern is not specifically with Dartmouth, which she said put in a “valiant effort” to offer resources for all students. But special education community advocates have reached out to the state to offer more opportunities for students remotely.

Working with special education students from home can be especially challenging for parents, she said, because the students are separated physically from teachers who understand them and their educational needs so well.

She worries about students such as her 16-year-old son, who can “regress substantially” without classroom instruction. She said that, as the situation is fluid, guidelines for special education students’ remote education could theoretically change in a short period of time.

The district is working with special education educators and service providers to develop material. Within the resource page developed for students, there is a special education tab that directs parents and students to material and resources that can provide support.

For parents with students with special needs, “we are trying to give them a sense of normalcy,” Jodoin said. “That can be challenging, though, in a time when the situation is ever changing.”

“The hard part is the uncertainty,” she added.

Meanwhile, school administrators are working to maintain connections between students and their teachers during this time.

Gifford said that these connections are crucial in any form. She noted that many teachers are hosting remote morning meetings with their students to “say hello.” 

“Those connections help a lot at this time,” she said. 

After these interviews were conducted, the federal Department of Education clarified in a fact sheet dated March 21 that school districts must provide a free and appropriate public education consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and their teachers.

“Some educators have been reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education,” a statement from the Department of Education reads. “This is simply not true. We remind schools they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities. Rather, school systems must make local decisions that take into consideration the health, safety, and well-being of all their students and staff.”