Teachers across Maryland are learning a new way of teaching students. Distance learning is a huge challenge for teachers, students and their families.
Maryland’s special educators have an even steeper hill to climb and it boils down to one word: individual.
While general education students by and large are learning in the same way, each special education student has an Individualized Education plan, or IEP. It is a legal document that spells out specifically what services and accommodations that student must receive. They include everything from breaking down instruction for struggling learners, to hands on physical and occupational therapy to behavior intervention. Trying to deliver those from a distance can be difficult if not impossible, and puts pressure on parents to be both special educator and therapist.
Daya Cheney Webb, the mother of an autistic teenager and a special education advocate in Baltimore County, said special education is a particularly vulnerable group.
“I think that demographically speaking, families of kids that are in special education are taxed to the max,” Webb said. “And I mean seven days a week.”
Of the 115,000 students in the Baltimore County Public Schools, 16,000 are on IEPs. Melissa Lembo Whisted, an executive director in the county schools’ academic services department, said each of those IEPs is being amended to more accurately reflect today’s reality. Educators are calling parents of special ed. students to talk over what can be done, and what should be done.
Whisted gave as an example a child who has goals dealing with both math and behavior but he doesn’t act up at home.
“We will work on the math goals,” Whisted said. “You will not be working on the behavior goals. If they have that conversation and they come to that agreement.”
Whisted said they haven’t been able to reach some families. Maybe their phone number has changed.
Webb said she knows one special ed. parent who has reached out to her child’s county school but has not heard back. Webb said she expects the quality of communication will vary from school to school.
But here is the conundrum for special ed. parents, according to Webb. They often have had to push hard for their children to get services written into the IEP. So they are worried that if they agree to a modified plan with fewer services during this pandemic, they may never get them back. However, Webb said parents need to keep an open mind to changes.
“To not be flexible on expectations would be a mistake and would kind of set everyone up for failure,” Webb said.
Mark Martin, a special education attorney, said parents don’t have to accept changes if they believe school officials want to scale back services too much. They can call for an IEP team meeting. Those can still happen. Martin said parents can ask for training in both academic strategies and in how to use the technology students need to connect with educators.
“How to utilize the Zoom, how to utilize Google Meetings, or Team Meetings in Microsoft,” Martin said.
BCPS also is still trying to nail down which students, special and general ed. alike, have access to the internet.
Special education is about closing gaps in instruction between students on IEPs and those who are not. Martin said for disabled students, every moment counts.
“And every moment means they’re already behind many students so they’re going to be further behind without that instruction,” Martin said.
Whisted said when schools reopen, they will assess each special ed. child to see if that gap has widened and what needs to be done to close it. And in those cases, Whisted said special educators are being told not to blame themselves.
“It’s not the fault of the school system,” Whisted said. “It’s not the fault of the teacher, the related service provider, the fact that we cannot deliver instruction the way we typically would have because of the mandate that we can’t be in school right now.”
Whisted said she is concerned about those students in the county’s three special day schools who have significant disabilities and need hands-on help.