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NEA News

Special Education Paraeducators Navigate Distance Learning

Without access to the services and one-on-one instruction these students need, special educators worry that much of the progress they’ve made will be lost.
Published: June 17, 2020

Whitney Barber, a special education paraprofessional at Middlebury Union Middle School in Middlebury, Vermont, admits she’s a worrier by nature. But her worries about her students and the COVID-19 pandemic are a constant cascade.

“I worry about all of the children and the unknown traumas; what their daily life is like stuck at home, especially since not all of them are in an environment where they should be 24/7,” she says. “But for our special education students, the ones who need consistency to function, who rely on the safety of a school routine, I worry about the suddenness and uncertainty of these past months and the impact it’s had. I worry how they’ve been coping.”

Barber feels that she and her colleagues will be able to meet the students where they are when they return, but nobody knows exactly how much will be lost. Educators agree that there will be a significant “COVID slide,” and that it will be particularly steep for special education students and low-income students.

All students benefit from face-to-face interactions, but Barber says her students need it. She works with 7th and 8th grade students with special needs, some of whom are on the autism spectrum, a few of whom are nonverbal.

“They respond to our smiles and words of encouragement, our gestures, facial expressions and body language,” Barber says. “But they can’t really see or hear well enough on Zoom or other video apps. They really need us to be right there beside them.”

Some special education students need assistive technology that they lost with the school closures. Many are low-income with no internet access and couldn’t benefit from assistive technology anyway.

Roughly 7 million, or 14 percent, of public school students receive special education services. Without access to the specific services and one-on-one instruction these students need, special educators are concerned that much of the progress they’ve made will be lost and they’ll have to start from the beginning, or even farther back. Many students have regressed as their families endure the pressures of the pandemic.

Still, educators find creative ways to engage and connect, as Barber has done with a girl who doesn’t speak or write, but expresses herself through drawing to represent her comprehension. This spring, her class was working on a lesson about the Trojan War, so Barber searched for ways to modify the lesson for the girl. She found online videos, stories and articles her mother could show and read to her. Then the girl was able to draw a picture of the Trojan Horse and her mom helped her label the different parts.

“Without my being there, I was able to feed them different information sources and different media, and with the patient cooperation of her mom, it was a success,” Barber says.

Flexibility For Families

Special education paraprofessional Whitney Barber with a student at Middlebury Union Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Barber)

The families are crucial, she says, and everyone has to be flexible to provide the necessary support for the students. Some parents had to work throughout the pandemic, others were called back more recently. So Barber and the other special educators and paras at her school would change their schedules accordingly so that somebody was always there to help the students.

“If for no other reason than to keep them from wandering away from the screen to do something else,” she says with a smile.

Unfortunately, parent participation isn’t always available.

“Some students haven’t responded to any emails or calls and we’ve been unable to reach their parents,” says Maureen Cahoon, a special education paraprofessional in Kent, Washington. “Parents are overwhelmed. Some are working, have several children to care for, and are struggling to deal with what’s going on just like all of us. It’s too much.”

Not being able to support her students emotionally when she knows how stressed and anxious they are is hard for her, but one of the things that keeps her up nights is knowing some of her students have very challenging home lives and others struggle with poverty or homelessness.

“When I can’t reach them, I have no idea how they’re doing,” she says.

Social Skills Without Socialization

Cahoon provides educational support to young adults with intellectual and developmental delays and as a job coach at the Transition Outreach Program (TOP) for the Kent School District in Kent, Washington.  Her work before COVID was done primarily out in the community, such as training the students on how to use public transportation to get to their job sites and attend social activities in their community.

I fear that students are feeling a lot of trauma without understanding the impacts of the COVID-19 virus ...There is a lot of anxiety and they’re at home without the supports our students who struggle with mental health issues need.” - Maureen Cahoon, special education paraprofessional

Students learned how to plan a monthly calendar, budget their money, use a debit card, and attend activities with peers. The district partners with local businesses where students volunteered to work alongside employees to learn employment skills. They also learned safety skills and appropriate behavior while in the community, all of which has come to a stop during COVID.

Like Barber, Cahoon is worried about the effect it’s having on the most vulnerable students.

“I fear that students are feeling a lot of trauma without understanding the impacts of the COVID-19 virus, plus the added stress and the impact on families with the protesting that currently surrounds them,” she says. “There is a lot of anxiety and they’re at home without the supports our students who struggle with mental health issues need.”

Cahoon also worries about them sliding backward after making so much progress when schools were open. Much of what they work on are social skills, which can’t easily be reinforced without socializing.

But rather than let the worries consume her, Cahoon improvises, uses her creativity and focuses on the positive.

Finding Lessons and Joy in the New Normal

One of her team’s goals is to provide social emotional learning supports for students. As team leader, Cahoon hosts a virtual "Team Social" every week that brings together students and staff to connect with each other. They have an opportunity to give “shout outs” to someone who has done well or been helpful and they can also share what they’ve been doing.

“It’s also a learning opportunity where they follow expectations of how you participate in a virtual meeting appropriately -- like if it’s not appropriate at school, it’s not appropriate online,” she says. “Students learn virtual meeting etiquette such as how to mute yourself when not speaking, how to raise your hand, how to use the chat box , and how to just have some fun.”

The feedback from students and staff has been overwhelmingly positive.

“There is a sense of joy from being together again and the happiness generated among those who’ve participated lingers on.”

It lingers on and it helps Cahoon stay positive and learn from the experience.

“I’ve learned to be more patient as we’re figuring out the new normal in providing special education remotely,” she says. “I’ve also learned that not all students can or will participate, and though it’s hard, I need to remember that I can only do my best to engage and support those who I can reach.”

Across the country in Vermont, Whitney Barber has also learned valuable lessons from educating through COVID.

“I’ve learned how you have to work with each student as a unique person, even more so when we’re in a crisis like this,” she says. “We’re not here just to help them get their work done. In fact, I think that’s our least important role. What we should do is let our students know we care and are here to guide them, and to encourage each student to be the best they can be.”

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