For more than seven years, I worked in a fully online public school that served general education and special education students in kindergarten through high school. During my teaching time, I specialized in special education needs. Since then I have worked as a professor at California State University, Fresno, conducting extensive research and presenting nationally and internationally on both online learning and special education.
With all students, including those with special education needs served under IDEA, there is a lot of talk about whether these students should be included in education right now, or if wavers for serving these students should be considered. What constitutes equitable teaching during this time of remote or online teaching?
Here are some important considerations for teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
While online, digital, and remote learning can effectively be accomplished, it takes extensive planning, training from experts or those who have experience, and the participation of parents or guardians. This is something that has been lacking to date.
We are now in the middle of what I’d call a period of grief. Teachers are grieving from not having the daily contact and interactions with students. These direct connections, relationships, and the environment teachers create are just as important as the core subject matter and testing metrics. For teachers and students in the special education world, this is even more intense. The stigma and overwhelming effort it takes for students and their teachers to push back against the idea that they are “different” in the world of education cannot be underestimated.
The question of “equitable teaching” is an interesting one. “Equitable” is everyone getting what they need. Is everyone in the education sphere getting what they need right now? Of course not. Are those with special education needs more impacted? I think that’s a hard question. Students on the autism spectrum may be doing better because they may be in a social safe space where learning might be a lot easier. Students with dyslexia may be getting more of the one-on-one attention they need through small group meetings, having parents or guardians understanding more about how they learn through one on one talks with teachers. Unfortunately, it is a privilege for students to have parents who have the time to provide the one-on-one attention and who can reach out to educators to learn how to handle this transition.
Many students are definitely not getting what they need. They are not in school and they are missing out on the social connections with other students and teachers. Students with severe special education needs may not be getting the counseling and/or therapy they need. This can even include physical therapy and occupational therapy that many of these students only get through the public-school system, and while in person.
During this crisis, the over-arching questions of equity and civil rights in education are spotlighted in schools as never before. We are finally seeing that it’s not very much about learning math and science. It’s about the incredible burden we put on schools, without the resources to support students with special needs who are seen or recognized, and students with special needs who are unseen like students with unidentified educational challenges. As an example, nonwhite students are statistically overly identified as having behavioral problems instead of being properly diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
The hopeful news is that there are examples of students learning and thriving in online and digital spaces. I was just privileged to observe a math lesson for 5th grade students in a digital environment. This particular science class was delivered in Google Meet. The students were very engaged. There were general education and special education students involved. Each was able to participate. In addition, there was a parent or guardian watching with one learner. I could see her standing behind the student and folding clothes. She would stop when she was interested in the lesson–it was terrific to watch.
Remote and digital learning is giving educators and learners an opportunity to “see” education differently. In many ways, special education differences become more opaque as this is rolled out and reimagined.