It’s one challenge to close any learning gaps for special education students, but in a pandemic, just measuring those gaps will be another obstacle for Kansas schools, two special education leaders told The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Bert Moore, director of special education and title services for the Kansas Department of Education, and Heith Peine, executive director of student support services for Wichita Public Schools, joined The Capital-Journal’s Teaching Topeka podcast to discuss how special education teachers across Kansas have adapted to teaching in a pandemic.
State Commissioner of Education Randy Watson on Tuesday told the Kansas State Board of Education that, after a tour of just a few western Kansas school districts, he was becoming increasingly concerned that certain student groups, including special education students, are showing signs of academic regression as schools adjust their operations for the pandemic. More than 76,000 students, or 14.7% of all Kansas students, receive special education.
Like all other students, special education students faced a significant disruption when schools closed for in-person operations in March. A few districts, mostly in rural counties where there hasn’t been significant COVID-19 spread, were able to continue special education with limited, small groups still coming to school buildings.
But other districts faced a more significant challenge in finding ways to continue that special education remotely. A preliminary report from school districts shows that about 10% of Kansas students lack access to either affordable or adequate internet at home.
“It’s been challenging, and I think we served the majority of students quite well during that time of remote opportunity, but we missed the opportunity for explicit instruction through face-to-face with our students who need that the most, and that’s our special population students,” Moore said. “They really need explicit instruction. We know that many of them have gaps now as a result of not having that educational process applied during that time.”
In the face of those gaps, special education administrators have been working closely to understand how to best move forward, Peine said. In addition to heading student support services for Kansas’s largest school district, Peine is president of the Kansas Association of Special Education Administrators.
“We’ve had to come up with new ways to provide support,” he said. “One example is that in my district, we’ve offered up a behavior hotline, so if parents are struggling with behavior at home, they can call in and talk to a behavior specialist and get some support that way. That’s something we wouldn’t have thought of before to offer to parents.”
A lot of special education practices are the same in a pandemic as during a regular school year, Peine said. One example is that teachers focus on clarity, such as clarity on what students are learning, how they’re learning it and why they’re learning it.
Special education teachers have also worked closely with their general education counterparts, Moore said, since “all special education students are general education students first.”
Kansas schools use a teaching framework called multi-tiered systems of support, where teachers identify student needs based on a first level of regular, core instruction, a second level for students who need more time to learn concepts and a third tier for students who haven’t mastered the concepts and need intervention in some form.
“I think that practice has helped us in general education understand how to reach and teach all students,” Moore said. “So as partners, and working collaboratively, we know that special education is not a place — it’s a service, and sometimes that service occurs outside of the general education classroom, but the least restrictive environment for it to occur is within the general ed classroom.”
Still, Moore said he worries that gaps are forming when both special and general education teachers aren’t seeing their students in person on a regular basis. Measuring those gaps is particularly challenging since it’s still early in the school year, and each student has different goals and objectives that they use to measure academic progress.
Special educators across the country have been looking for some flexibility in regulations in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to better tailor learning to students’ needs during the pandemic, Peine said.
He emphasized that equity and equality aren’t the same, especially when it comes to ensuring special education students receive the same opportunities as their peers.
“I’ve heard some educators advertise that they have equity because they found a way to get every student a digital device,” Peine said. “Just having a device won’t create equity for all students. It’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t provide equity. It provides equality. My hope is that the districts continually monitor the progress of all students and on an individual basis adjust if needed.”
Both Peine and Moore said special education teachers will have to use trial and error to figure out what works best for students, with the common goal of making sure all students are set up for success outside of school.
“General education and special education need to see themselves through one lens, and that lens is student achievement, student outcomes and students being successful beyond the school doors,” Moore said. “As long as we can partner all of this together, based on the needs of each student, then we can be successful in helping each student to achieve a happy life beyond the school door.”
Listen to the full interview online in our second episode of Teaching Topeka, The Capital-Journal’s new podcast series exploring education topics during the pandemic.