Throughout this past summer, the Park County School District #1 administration in Powell was focusing on how to reopen schools safely for their students amid the pandemic. Then Ginger Sleep, the district's special services director, said they got another surprise.
"Coming into the school year, we knew that we would have students, which we love having students in Park #1 We just didn't know the magnitude of those needs and just the quantity," said Sleep.
Close to 40 new students with special needs enrolled in the district at the start of the school year. Twenty of those were from out of state.
"Every student has individual needs, and we're required by law to meet their needs. And we want to meet their needs to the best of our ability," said Sleep.
The district advertised for a special ed teacher but received no qualified applicants. So, they increased hours of existing staff and hired some part-timers to pick up the slack. But the special ed teachers didn't only have to deal with an influx of students, they also had to learn how to help those students while wearing a mask and social distancing.
"We're sitting next to them, helping them as they work on their computer helping them as they're taking notes," said Amy Fulton, a special education teacher at Powell Middle School.
She said at the beginning of the school year it was pretty stressful, but they've managed to figure out work arounds.
"[For example,] the Barton reading and spelling system, it's very hands on. It involves manipulating tiles with letters on them. It involves sitting close with the students," said Fulton. "They have to be able to see your mouth a lot of times when you make those sounds."
Fulton said they have no other choice than to sit further away with their masks on, take breaks and sanitize the tiles. And she said it works, students are adapting to the new rules
Korbin Harvison is one of those new students that joined the district this year. Her family moved from Montana. At first, Korbin struggled with the mask.
"Because it just fogs up my glasses. And then I'm trying to clear my glasses off and pay attention," she said.
She found a mask that has wire on it so it doesn't fog up her glasses anymore. Considering everything, she's happy she's in the classroom and can see that her para educators are still able to help her.
"If I didn't have a para for some of my classes, I probably wouldn't have that good of a grade," said Korbin. "Because they've helped me a lot, especially in Math and English, and especially in science, they've helped me keep my grades up."
Since October, 12 more new special education students have enrolled in the district. Ginger Sleep thinks part of the reason is because the Powell schools have remained open to in-person classes. And she's happy so many people are recognizing the district's abilities.
But if this uptick continues, she's worried that her budget will not be able to handle it, especially as the legislature is talking about big education cuts this year.
"I do worry when they talk about caps on certain programs or services, and I am just worried that we have an influx of students," she said.
Another problem is that it is hard to plan ahead. The district can't tell if this trend will continue. If it does, Sleep said they have no other choice than to provide services to these students because of federal law. But it is unclear whether they need to keep on hiring special ed teachers or not.
"When we have an influx, we have to respond," said Sleep. "And when we don't have that staff available, we're going to have to request more, saying, 'Hey, this is a need that wasn't present the year before, you're funding us at this level, but the student requires this amount of service.'"
Currently, the special education program is funded by federal grants and state funds. Sleep said no matter what they will be innovative and figure out how to continue providing the best aid to their students. But their challenges will be greater if the district has its budget slashed.