The emergence of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has created unprecedented challenges for instructors and students. Traditionally, special education settings have been most effective because of their ability to offer small group interactions and one-on-one engagement and support.
Amid rising infections, though, many schools have transitioned to virtual or hybrid schedules, leaving special education teachers to forge an instructional pathway that both balances the safety of students attending in person and meets the needs of those logging in from home. Special education professionals can gain the invaluable skills to do this through a higher education degree, like a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction with a Specialization in Special Education online program.
Here are some of those virtual and hybrid model challenges and how educators are overcoming them.
How Has COVID Affected Special Education?
Creating a safe and effective learning environment for students with special needs — whether in the classroom or online — is paramount and requires increased collaboration among parents, teachers and students. Overall, the primary challenges presented by the pandemic include:
Disrupted routines. Special education students thrive on routine and in environments that promote consistency and stability. Unfortunately, many of those routines have been disrupted as students encounter rapidly changing guidelines and safety measures like masking, frequent handwashing and distancing from their teachers and peers. It may be difficult for teachers and professionals to work closely with students and remain safe, undermining the core of their typical approach. Remote learning students face potential technological barriers, decreased focus and a weakened teacher-student bond.
Inadequate internet access. Students learning from home require a reliable internet connection with adequate speed, which is something low-income and rural households often lack. According to the Texas Demographic Center, nearly 17% of Texas households do not have internet access. Of the homes with internet service, more than 14% rely on a mobile phone or cellular plan to stay connected. Many of these same students also do not have any e-learning devices, such as tablets and laptops.
Gaps in technological literacy. Even if the hurdles of disrupted routines and connectivity are overcome, the varying levels of technological literacy is a factor. Students and parents are likely limited in their technical capabilities, resulting in frustration and further disengagement if they have difficulties navigating an online platform. Teachers may not have the necessary experience and skillsets to provide remote instruction, especially if they are tasked with simultaneously engaging students in the classroom.
How Are Special Needs Educators Overcoming COVID-19 Challenges?
Despite these significant challenges, innovative educators are finding ways to continue reaching their most vulnerable student populations. Many states have used a portion of their emergency federal funding to close the connectivity gap by investing in laptops and hotspot devices. For example, the Texas Education Agency purchased one million devices as part of the state's Operation Connectivity initiative, which is enough to supply any student attending public school with a device and the internet.
Some school systems have enlisted the help of teacher candidates, individuals who are still completing their clinical practicums. The candidates support their supervising teachers by developing special education learning modules, providing virtual assistance to students with disabilities and helping parents become more comfortable with the various online learning platforms.
Educators have also increased their communications with parents to ensure they understand how safety restrictions affect learning outcomes and that they adhere to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans. To offset these hardships, educators should share information with parents about available support and resources, including applying for supplemental special education services (SSES).
Prioritizing Special Needs
COVID-19 has drastically altered the classroom setting and impacted how special education teachers engage with students and meet their needs. While teachers have initially struggled to balance safety measures in the classroom alongside the demands of remote instruction, many are finding ways to stay connected to students and provide critical support and guidance for families during this turbulent time.
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