Teachers of Special-Needs Students Struggle With Feelings of Helplessness


This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on the challenges of online education during the coronavirus outbreak.

They have spent decades honing their patience and optimism at one of the most demanding jobs in education: teaching children with special needs.

But many of these veteran educators say they feel more worried, depleted and, at times, more helpless than ever as they try to teach their students — many of whom need intensive one-on-one guidance — through their screens.

“Serving students with special needs is already a challenge on a regular basis,” said Estella Owoimaha-Church, a theater and English teacher in Los Angeles. “Now, trying to meet accommodations and modifications through a computer is near impossible. It’s hard to figure out where to start.” A number of her students need special education.

While many teachers are struggling, the obstacles experienced by those who teach children and young adults with disabilities are daunting.

It is not only because their students’ challenges often make it more difficult for them to learn remotely, but also because districts are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide specific services and meet particular goals within a certain time frame to any child deemed to be eligible for special education services. That can include not just academics, but related services such as occupational, physical and speech therapy.

Those details are all laid out in a student’s Individualized Education Program, or I.E.P. According to the Education Department, seven million children ages 3 to 21, or 14 percent of all public-school students, receive such special education services.

Parents of those students “have a right to sue their school district if their children fail to make progress,” said Leah Murphy, an impartial hearing officer in New York State who presides over special education cases.

And that means teachers and administrators are not just worried about helping their students learn under exceptional circumstances, but also meeting legal mandates.

“My type of special education is really hands-on,” said Marci Levins, who teaches 16 students 18 to 22 years old in an adult transition class in Cerritos, Calif. “For the academic goals in the I.E.P.s, I can do them over the computer. I cannot meet their vocational goals, which is to be on job sites and learn skills.”

Back before the coronavirus struck, some days her students rode public transportation or walked to their job placements at local stores; other days they might have gone to a nearby mall to test their knowledge about such things as making change and how to find a certain item.

“For students in this kind of program, there’s such a community component, and the community’s gone now,” Ms. Levins said.

The last week before the school shut down in mid-March, she spent all her time feverishly teaching the young adults how to use their new iPads, which they took home the day before school closed to start their remote learning.

And the technology challenges alone have been mind-boggling. “I don’t think anyone’s to blame now,” she said. “This last week of school everyone was scrambling, and it was too little, too late.”

But as the weeks move on, she’s seeing improvement. “At one time I had 10 of my students in Google Classroom, and that was a crowning achievement,” she said. “But I won’t give up until I have all of them.”

Danielle Kovach, who teaches second- and third-grade special education in Hopatcong, N.J., said she and her colleagues agonized about how to assess their children adequately now.

Dr. Kovach, who was voted New Jersey’s teacher of the year in 2011, said she was working on her quarterly I.E.P. reports one night and, “I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know where to go from here’ and I had to take a moment to cry. I’m so worried — am I giving them everything they need and doing everything I can do?”

As things seem to change almost daily, special education teachers are leaning on each other to find resources, understand software and boost morale. And that’s true not only in their own schools or districts, but also across the country.

Since mid-March, the Council for Exceptional Children, a resource and advocacy organization for those involved in educating children with special needs, waived its annual $65 membership fee.

About 20,000 new teachers, administrators and aides signed on in the first couple of weeks, doubling its membership, said Chad Rummel, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children. On the site, members can access information and updates, but also share through forums their questions and fears.

“We’re trying to share best practices, and not just say, here’s what the research says, but here’s what Kelly’s doing in Indiana that you might try too,” Mr. Rummel said.

Teachers are worrying not only about keeping their students’ academics up to speed, but also about how they will cope with being suddenly torn from their teachers, friends and programs.

“The most challenging part of this — first and foremost — is not being able to be there with my kids every day,” Dr. Kovach said. “It’s not just making sure they’re doing their work, but making sure they know they’re safe and loved.”

Ms. Owoimaha-Church is particularly concerned about some of her autistic students, who had finally succeeded in becoming part of a social network in school — something that can be particularly hard for those with autism.

“I knew when this was coming down, it would shake them to their core,” she said. “Their routine is off, and the peer support group they managed to create for themselves — through clubs and hanging out at lunch — are now gone.”

One high school junior, who came out of his shell in the last year by bonding with a group of seniors, became very depressed early on after classes shut down, Ms. Owoimaha-Church said.

“At one point, he just sat on the phone with me for 40 minutes,” she said. “He’s just not doing well, socially, emotionally.

“He asked, ‘When are we going back to school?’” And when I said, ‘probably not this school year,’ he just started to cry. He realized he won’t see his friends again because they’re all seniors.”

Jordan Daleson, a remedial reading teacher at an elementary school in Beaverton, Ore., worries about the children she typically sees only at lunch and recesses, but for whom she has become a source of informal emotional support.

“I miss them, and I hope they miss me, but I also hope they don’t,” she said.

And while including parents in the remote learning process is crucial for these students, teachers are also very aware of the burdens everyone is facing.

Some parents are essential workers and unable to be home with their children to assist or supervise their learning. Others have lost jobs or are balancing several children all learning at different levels.

“A lot of this isn’t just being there to support the students, but also the students’ families,” Dr. Kovach said. “This is what we deal with in the classroom all the time, but now we’re focusing on it virtually.”

Ms. Daleson, knows both sides of special education — her son Alistair, 6, is autistic. He gets occupational and speech therapies among other services; when his school shut down, he was learning how to hold a pencil and use the toilet.

“My son is extremely rigid with his schedule, and there’s no academic focus with him at home,” Ms. Daleson said.

“I am currently doing half of Alistair’s schoolwork with him while he is in the bath, because it is the one place in our home he will reliably focus,” she said. “Every moment is precious for him. He’s trying to get caught up with typical kids.”

Claire Neff, who teaches reading and mathematics in a low-income elementary school in Bloomington, Ind., said a watershed moment was when she and a parent of one of her students with special needs were grappling with the technology.

“We met for an hour one day, and it was the blind leading the blind,” Ms. Neff said. “We spent another hour the second day and finally got her on. It was such a binding experience — we were literally hugging through our computers. We did not quit, and now I’m teaching her kid.

“The first time I meet her in person, I’m going to give her a real hug.”



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