Special education programs face unique challenges heading back to school

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Special education teachers, parents, and students faced unique obstacles from school closures due to COVID-19. The specifics of many school reopening plans are still uncertain, leaving teachers and parents concerned about getting their children back to routine in the fall.

Everything changed this spring for Olivia Andrews, a student in Johnson City School’s special ed program. She was happy to reunite with her teacher, Kaylea Shelton, after finishing 8th grade virtually.

“This virus has flipped us upside down,” said Olivia.

Shelton said the halt to in-person learning has been the biggest challenge of her teaching career.

“Nothing compared to this,” she said. “Having to completely change how I’m teaching these kids that I work in small groups and one-on-one with on a daily basis.”

Kaylea Shelton, Olivia Andrews, and Susan Andrews

Shelton is confident her students can make up academic progress lost from having to learn from home. Her biggest concern is lost social skill development.

“A lot of them didn’t leave home, and social skills are so important,” she said.

Teachers used to giving their special ed students hands-on support had to adjust to not being physically present with them. All kinds of lessons were suddenly supervised at home by parents – from reading and math, to life skills like cooking and counting money.

Olivia’s mother, Susan, has her own concerns about virus prevention plans for when her daughter heads to high school next year.

“Most of our special needs kids have pre-disposing conditions that make them more at risk for certain diseases,” Susan said.

The safety of over 1,700 special education students is on Jacki Wolfe’s mind as school reopening plans form. As the special ed director for Kingsport City Schools, she hopes in-person teaching will be possible.

“So that we have [students] in front of us, and we are really delivering that instruction that our teachers are trained to deliver,” said Wolfe.

Jacki Wolfe

The school district provided computers and iPads to help students learn from home this spring. Wolfe said teachers relied on phone calls with parents to track student progress.

“Teachers, it was hard for them not to get discouraged. We did have students whose families were not answering the phone and not actively engaged in that learning during this time,” she said.

Wolfe says they expect to see some regression in student progress.

“Knowing that we’re going to have to do some more intervention and get students back to where they were,” she said.

Going forward, Wolfe said they’ll use some of the changes made by the pandemic to their advantage.

“We did virtual IEP meetings. That’s something we’ve never done before,” she said. “We often have parents who struggle with taking off work to get to those meetings. I think it’s important to realize that not everything during this time, even if it was a challenge, was a bad thing.”

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