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'We're Really Not Trying To Make Progress': Rural Teachers Navigate Special Needs Amid Pandemic

Dora Reyes sits at a desk with bookshelves full of learning materials behind her. The classroom is devoid of students.
Adam Rayes
/
KUNC
Dora Reyes sits in an empty classroom in Sterling about a week before Governor Jared Polis announced the state would end all in-person learning due to COVID-19.

Sandy Harper usually works as a paraprofessional, meaning she helps teachers by giving direct assistance to a group of special education students in the Akron R-1 Public School District. But these days, she’s responsible for just one student: her 12-year-old granddaughter.

“We talked about it and I told her I was her teacher when we’re doing schoolwork. And that’s what it had to be,” she said.

School for Harper's granddaughter and most Coloradan K-12 students will wrap up the current academic year later this month. The sudden switch to distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic has been a learning experience for rural and small schools on the Eastern Plains. Districts have been working to connect with families, find creative ways to encourage learning and provide access to devices and internet connectivity.

Still, students with special needs and language barriers face some unique challenges. And teachers have found both losses and gains in this new educational paradigm.

Harper adopted her granddaughter, who has autism and ADHD, late last year. Because of her more intense needs, the 12-year-old is given a lot of one-on-one assistance and is in a more isolated class with other kids with a similar level of need.

The pair spend most mornings side-by-side, getting lessons from the teacher via video call or working on a packet of assignments and reading. Overall, Harper doesn’t feel like virtual schooling has been detrimental to her granddaughter, but it can be difficult.

“Sometimes she’ll get to a point where it’s like — she’s done. And she’s like ‘I’m done. I’m done. I’m done,” Harper said with a chuckle.

And at that point, they just have to stop and play with toys or go on a walk before schooling can continue. Harper has to strike a delicate balance between grandma and teacher, but it’s one she thinks her granddaughter understands.

Harper misses the four or five students she regularly worked with before the switch to distance learning. But her granddaughter's special education teacher, Peggy Dreher, really needed the paraprofessional’s help and pushed for Harper to be able to just work with her granddaughter.

“Without her support, I would not be able to have that student on virtually,” Dreher said.

Dreher teaches in the Akron school district. Including Harper’s granddaughter, she teaches eight of the district’s 16 students with “significant support needs.” She says these fifth grade to high school-aged students “function at a first to third-grade level.”

All but two of her students have been able to consistently connect with her online, barring the occasional internet issue. One student who hasn’t been able to connect haunts her in particular, because he had just joined her class shortly before the switch to distance learning.

“It was rough trying to communicate with him and understand what he was trying to tell us and deal with his anxiety and just get through all those changes,” Dreher said. “And then we had a couple of really good weeks and now there’s a really good possibility we won’t see each other again until August.”

She says the online tools for distance learning have been inaccessible for both students. And it’s been “impossible” for their parents to put in place any kind of real education program at home, so all Dreher can do is periodically check-in on them.

“That part has been probably the most devastating,” she said.

As for the rest of her students who have parental support and have been able to connect, the Dreher says she’s been able to keep up the pace on teaching new skills.

“The first week was a huge learning curve, so it was a little bit difficult,” she said. “But when I started to really go outside of my comfort zone with my technology and things like that, it’s been highly doable.”

Lost learning

Wendy Dudley works with 18 deaf and hard of hearing students across member districts in the Northeast Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) .

She’s less confident about their ability to learn new things in this environment.

“We’re just trying to retain skills,” Dudley said. “We’re really not trying to make progress.”  

Her students could be in Yuma, east of Greeley, or 50 minutes north in Sterling and Haxtun. Normally she spends hours driving from one school to another just to spend a varied but short amount of time supporting each student.

“It’s still really hard for them to access communication obviously because they can’t hear well,” Dudley said, describing why these students need her support. “So that affects their language development, hence that affects their concept development and overall cognitive development at times.”

To her surprise, all but one of her students have been able to connect with her and their general education teachers online consistently.

In some ways, distance learning has been a boon for her students. The platforms many teachers use for video classes offer closed captioning and easily connect to their hearing aids. It’s been fairly easy for her to go over assignments and lessons with them.

And having to drive less is nice, but she misses the direct contact with her students.

“It’s hard for me not to be with students face to face. Because that’s just my nature,” she said.

Tamara Durbin is the Special Education Director for the Northeast BOCES. She agrees that just maintaining skills, rather than teaching new ones, is going to be the focus of most distance learning classes, but she’s also seen some educators find creative, non-stressful ways to build new content into their teaching.

“I recently had a teacher share with me that she was able to participate in a Zoom session with a parent and the student while the student chose a recipe and did some cooking as a result of it,” Durbin said. “And it was a perfect opportunity to build in some reading, writing and some math.”

While these educators lament the loss of their ability to directly interact with their students, they’re also more concerned about the impact losing access to their peers will have on the kids.

“It's such a big part of the educational environment and there is no way to duplicate the same type of socialization opportunities when everyone is in their home,” Durbin said.

The teachers said students can learn a lot of linguistic and social skills from each other and are disappointed that they will be missing out on that. Though, Durbin said, some districts and teachers, like Dreher from Akron, have been trying to keep students in contact with each other through Zoom and other distance communication methods.

Getting connected

A little over 6% of school-age kids in the Eastern Plains don’t have internet access at home, according to Colorado State University’s Colorado Futures Center. Of the state’s five regions, the plains rank third for rate of students without a connection.

The percentage of students without access is highest on the Western Slope (about 12%), but the total number of students is largest along the Front Range (around 40,000).

“We are small enough in our communities to be able to work with our families to make sure that they do have wi-fi access,” Durbin said. “And that has been mostly the biggest challenge in addition to making sure there are enough devices in the home to provide students with access to services.”

Partnerships with companies like T-Mobile, which has provided hotspots for students, have been a huge help, she said. Three of her staff members needed such help to get connected themselves.

Still, how much parental support a student gets can matter just as much as an internet connection when it comes to a successful education — that can be the case in general, but especially now, Durbin said.

“That would be my primary concern in regards to the educational opportunities for our students,” she said. “I think we’ve tried to make arrangements for students to be able to access their teachers and their special education providers and related service providers to access help when they need that so that they do have that support in the home.”

More than half of students without an internet connection have parents who work in industries deemed “essential” in the pandemic, according to the Colorado Futures Center. Meaning many of those parents could be too busy with work to help students during the day. The schools and teachers can try to work around schedules, Durbin said, by setting up later Zoom meetings and giving packets that can be done at any time of day, but it can be difficult.

“Inevitably, my guess is that there are inequities in regard to what that home environment looks like to support student learning,” she said.

The center also notes most of the students who lack internet in Colorado are Hispanic. About 600 of those students are in the Eastern Plains.

“The kiddos who need it the most are the ones that are not logging in,” said Dora Reyes, English Language Learner Coordinator for the RE-1 Valley School District in Sterling.

Most of her students have been making it online, but a handful in each of her kindergarten through second-grade levels have not.

“I still have a few who have not been able to figure out how to log in to the program, or haven’t been able to pick up their devices and there’s some we still haven’t even been able to get a hold of,” she said.

For the time being, Reyes is not holding any classes of her own; instead prioritizing students getting into and just understanding their general education classes. It’s all complex and frustrating for her, but she said it's better than no school at all.

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