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Special education is inherently individual.
That means when classes moved online due to the pandemic, educators, right along with their students, were challenged to meet students’ individual needs — while taking into account a new, online-only method of learning.
Of the more than 14,000 students in the Iowa City Community School District, about 1,500 have an IEP, or an individual education plan, as part of the district’s special education program. Iowa City schools have adjusted along with the pandemic, ensuring each IEP includes a plan for remote learning.
“Our students with IEPs are always general education students first,” said Lisa Glenn, special education director for the district. “And so we’ve got to make sure and provide those accommodations and modifications so that students can access the general program. So, we have to think about those things virtually.”
About 44% of students with IEPs have opted-in to the online-only learning program, which closely tracks with the roughly 46% of overall students in the district who have done the same.
The rest of the students are in the standard enrollment program, which still requires them to take some classes online when coronavirus cases are relatively low in Johnson County and the district is in a “hybrid” learning model. Hybrid learning will begin this year on Sept. 28.
Some services, experiences have to be in-person
Earlier this month, the ICCSD elected to allow a small portion students in the special education program to receive services on-site, even if the rest of the district was in online-only mode.
“Even as we have become better and better at providing services virtually, we still have a few students for whom we have not found a good solution for and are still struggling with providing an adequate education,” Glenn said, noting that the number of students impacted by the update will be small.
Education teams for those students are now able to discuss bringing them on-site for certain, targeted services, such as for students who use large equipment that can’t be delivered to a home or who work with special providers.
“We would be talking about very complicated kinds of services that would just be really, really difficult to provide virtually,” Glenn said.
This special education classroom at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa, is set up for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Tables have been spaced out from one another for social distancing and are marked with tape on the floor. Students are also given individual bins with disinfected supplies. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
Learning through experience can be very beneficial for some students in special education programs, said J.P. Claussen, a school board member and former special education teacher in the district. It’s also difficult to simulate online.
“For some kids, what we do in special ed is we’re going to teach you skills in this certain environment, which is the classroom. And then we’re going to work really hard to get you to generalize those skills in other environments, including home,” Claussen said.
Generalizing those skills is the hardest part do to.
“If they haven’t learned to generalize those skills, the fact that you’re trying to teach those skills at home without a person present… they’re not going to understand what’s going on. Like, ‘Why is school happening at home?'” Claussen said.
Some students’ IEPs require they learn skills that will support their independence after high school, like riding the city bus or crossing the street safely, which is also difficult to recreate through a computer screen.
The district also has a program that places special education students into community jobs for two hours a week. That program is on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic, although some students are working at in-school jobs.
The Best Buddies program, which pairs students in the special education program with students outside of it, is still in full swing this year — although it’s online.
Stella Foster, a senior at City High, is the president of the program and has been paired with her “buddy” and friend, Kiriana, for three years.
“She is the most welcoming and friendly person,” Foster says. “She makes me want to meet more people.”
There are around 40 pairs of students in the program, making 80 participants. Even more people join the activities, totaling around 300 people, Foster says. The group aims to hold all activities possible online.
‘We’re burning the candle at both ends to try and meet their needs’
Kiriana’s mom, Nicole Horning, says her daughter has not found online classes easy. As an extremely social person, she learns best with 1-1, in-person instruction. She also has trouble reading on screens and learns better with hands-on tools, like pencil and paper.
“Learning online is a huge challenge, because my daughter has always loved mirrors, and Zoom is kind of like a mirror. And so sometimes, it’s distracting because she can see her friends and say hi, and she hasn’t seen them in person since spring.”
Teachers have found ways to help, like:
- Printing out class assignments
- Using programs that read out loud
- Making videos to explain how to use certain software
As someone who isn’t “tech savvy” himself, Tom Braverman, a special education teacher at City High, likes to use paper and pencil in the classroom and have kids read out of books, knowing those skills will be essential for life after high school.
“A lot of the students that we work with … tend to find navigating the internet and technology cumbersome and kind of difficult,” Braverman said. “And for those students, it’s hard to participate in a meaningful way. And so we’re burning the candle at both ends to try and meet their needs and make sure that they’re having opportunities to grow and participate.”
‘Everybody is really trying to make it work’
Online education also means that parents, guardians and siblings at home have had to take on the role of a special education teacher — sometimes having to keep the student focused and make sure they continue with their online classes throughout the day.
“At City High, we have some pretty amazing teachers,” Braverman says. “And, that being said, we also have some pretty darn amazing parents who are taking on something that they really weren’t expecting to do.”
Tom Braverman, a special education teacher at City High, sets up a Zoom video conference for his first period class amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
Horning and her husband help switch off taking notes for Kiriana during the day, a job that under normal circumstances is filled by a paraprofessional in the classroom. She knows their family is lucky, because they are able to find the time to help with online learning during the week, which is not the case for all families.
Next week, Kiriana will go back to school in-person part of the time as hybrid learning resumes. Horning feels like she had to choose her daughter’s education over her health in deciding whether to keep her online only.
Horning recognizes that online learning is less than optimal, but commends the teachers who are doing all they can to help.
“I feel super fortunate that we live in Iowa City — that the teachers and staff genuinely care about what they’re doing, and their students. And everybody is really trying to make it work,” she said.
Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter via @_CleoKrejci.
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