Special Educators Prepare For Reopening Schools, Returning Students

Aug 14, 2020

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act promises all students, regardless of ability, the same opportunity for a good education. That promise stands in full, even during a pandemic.

When schools closed last spring to stem the spread of COVID-19, teachers and students alike had to quickly acclimate to virtual learning. Now they are gearing up for a school year full of masks and social distance. It's a year that could oscillate between in-person classrooms and virtual spaces.

Special educators want to keep offering individualized instruction, even if this new reality presents unique challenges for them.

"Right now, it is hard to prepare for the school year," said Sarah Call, a special education teacher in Cody.

Call said she's confident her students will receive as good an education as ever. But it will take careful, extensive preparation.

"You have to be prepared for whether it's in-person, whether it's the hybrid - you know, in-person and online for some students - or if it's completely online," she said. "So, we have to prepare so that we're ready for any of those situations."

In person, students with sensory needs might find the necessary masks uncomfortable or distracting. Those needing to learn and practice appropriate boundaries must now learn the new standard for social distance, staying six feet apart whenever possible.

"When you talk about that virtual situation, that creates a whole new set of challenges as far as the effectiveness of that instruction," said Jared Moretti, the student support services director for Park County School District No. 6, which covers Cody. "Trying to do physical therapy virtually over a computer - that's difficult to do."

Like general education teachers, special educators will likely have to alter their plans throughout the fall semester, as circumstances change.

"I think we really have to be flexible," Moretti said.

A major component of special education is preparing students for "the real world." The question now is: what is the real world going to look like? And what world should students be prepared for?

It's something Moretti has been thinking about.

"I don't think our school is going to go back to exactly the way it was," he said. "I don't know if our world will go back exactly to what it was. I think we do a really good job of preparing students and having them meet goals and make progress toward a target. The hard part is now we don't know what that target is."

Moretti, Call and others in special education will have to figure it out as they go.

"They definitely didn't have any college courses as far as what happens when you shut down a school for a pandemic," Moretti said. "We are literally building the airplane as we fly it right now."

Teachers and specialists are guided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Margee Robertson, director for special education programs at the Wyoming Department of Education, said a pandemic doesn't change that federal promise of equitable instruction.

"That law stands in full," Robertson said. "It has not shifted. It has not changed. We're going to apply it full on. So much of special education shouldn't change, even though our world has shifted."

Student progress and goals are laid out in what's known as an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is created and continually updated by a team of educators, administrators, specialists and the students' parents.

Robertson said IEP teams will have to be responsive to the changing nature of the pandemic and their local county-level health guidance.

"Really what's on that IEP is a contract, or an agreement, of what is to be provided to a child," she said. "What should not change is that kids should get exactly what is spelled out on their IEP, and that parents should be included in that discussion and those decisions."

Robertson said Wyoming schools are poised to do just this.

"We're in some very tough times," she said. "The most important piece to remember is an IEP team - this team of people who know and care about this student - have to come together to solve these problems on an individual basis. There's not one answer for all kids. It has to be individualized."

Laurel Main is the director of special education for Sheridan County School District One, where students return to school on August 24th. She said thinking about how to offer individualized instruction is nothing new for special educators and IEP teams.

"It's always something I think about and that I'm concerned about, whether we're in school or not in school," Main said.

She added IEP teams will continue to do what they have always been tasked with doing: trying to make the best possible decisions and looking for the best long-term outcomes for their students.

"I'm not any more concerned than I am any day," Main said. "Because I think that's always at the forefront of your mind: Is this what's really best for kids? And is this really what this kid needs? And is there more we can be doing? Is there something we didn't do that we should be doing? I mean those are questions that we're constantly asking ourselves."

Back in Cody, Sarah Call said she's trying to set the right tone for her classes.

"I really try to always have a positive attitude and I just need to step that up a notch this year," she said.

Call said students are going to have a school year unlike any other. But their teachers will be there to help prepare them for an uncertain world.

This story has been updated to clarify the areas in which Park County School District No. 6 covers.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Jeff Victor, at jvictor@uwyo.edu