Maria Tapia

McCurdy Charter School Special Education teacher Maria Tapia works online in her "classroom" in her Hernandez home. She said it's a challenge to keep students engaged online but that she's helped students learn software and how to load and use applications that help with studiies.

   In the face of COVID-19, area special education programs have had to be more innovative than ever before.

    In an aspect of education that is heavily reliant on interpersonal relationships and in-person one-on-one instruction, the chasm created by the COVID-inspired classroom model has been difficult to bridge, said McCurdy Charter School Director Sarah Tario.

    “It has definitely been a challenge to support the unique learning needs of some of our students without being there with them,” she said. “Adapting to the at-home model has been difficult for all of our students but having a learning difficulty compounds that obstacle. Like teachers, students didn’t have time to prepare for a completely new system that happened overnight.”

    McCurdy’s total student population is roughly 526 students with 15 percent of the student body consisting of special education students. Hence the charter school’s immediate move to provide Google Chromebooks to every student in the school, should the family require it, was a move adopted by school districts nationwide.

    That universal accessibility to technology is one practice that needs to be commonplace as education eventually shifts back to an in-person classroom model, said April Miller, McCurdy special education coordinator.

    “We will be staying virtual for the rest of the year,” she said. “The pandemic has shown how inequitable education can be and I love that every student has a Chromebook, but we can still see that inequity, especially in terms of internet access for lower income and rural students. We have students that are working from their parent’s workplace or have to travel to use the internet.”

    Communication with parents has been vital to bridge the internet and technology gap in terms of the school not only providing them with resources to either acquire or access the internet but to learn and be able to help their students navigate the new online approach to learning, Miller said.

    “We immediately notified families this summer and encouraged them to get the internet to prepare for the school year,” she said. “Not only did we provide them with Chromebooks and resources to get internet access in their homes, but we were able to provide hotspots for lower income and our more rural students. Our technology department has also extended outside of providing support for school staff and is now aiding families in addressing issues that they may face.”

Modified plans

    Bridging the technology gap was only the beginning for McCurdy, Española Public Schools, Pojoaque Valley School District and  Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools, especially in meeting the needs laid out in each district’s special education students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

    Through a Plan, students receive myriad support services ranging from physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social work, transition services, psychology as well as recreational therapy.

    The challenge in the in-home COVID-inspired classroom was providing these traditionally in person services virtually. A practice that McCurdy had already had in place for years prior to COVID-19, said Miller.

    For others, ensuring Plans were met became a top priority that required educators, therapists as well as families to come together, said Deirdra Montoya, student services and wellness executive director for EPS.

    “We have and will continue to hold all IE services in high regard,” she said. “IEP services are being conducted remotely and each one looks a little bit different.”

    Of  Española’s  3,516 students, 546 of those are special education, including the district’s gifted students, and while psychological, speech and social work services lended themselves easily to a remote model, providing occupational, physical and recreational therapy to those students that require one or all of the aforementioned services presented a unique challenge, she said.

    “Occupational and physical therapy were challenging because they are so hands on,” Montoya said. “Our occupational and physical therapists are leading exercises over Google Meet and our physical therapists are also delivering specialized equipment that is traditionally used in a school setting to the students’ homes. What has been unique is that the therapists are teaching the families how to use the equipment and conduct the exercises.”

Creative thinking

    Recreational therapy presented its own special challenges as well, especially given the program’s reliance on community outings, Montoya said.

    “It is a difficult program to deliver remotely especially given that community outings were not possible due to the pandemic,” she said. “We are proud to say that our recreational therapy team has done an excellent job of delivering these services remotely. During their weekly sessions our team leads students through physical exercise and mindfulness routines. They are also leading students on virtual tours of local recreational sites such as Bandelier National Monument.”

    Through identifying and overcoming the persistent obstacles presented by COVID-19 challenges have been met and lessons have been learned, such as the need for a greater focus on the practical use of technology as a life skill, said Maria Tapia, McCurdy middle and high school special education teacher.

    “Using technology such as email effectively was an obstacle at the beginning,” she said. “In my enrichment class we were working on skills like filling out applications and interviewing, but when we switched to the home model the use of email became important, something we didn’t consider when we were in person.”

    Email and its use as a communication tool quickly became a focus given that it was vital in students and teachers correspondence, she said.

    “We never thought that we would find ourselves in a global pandemic that would require us to sacrifice the interpersonal connection for online instruction,” she said. “As adults we use email professionally and personally but we never anticipated it being our primary line of communication with students. The practical use of email will be a focus from here on out as well a larger focus on the use of technology in general as we move back into in-person learning.

    “As we move forward it is important that we ensure that students know how to use not only email, but the various tools available to them, many of which we have been forced to use during the pandemic,” Tapia said. “In the last year, we have advanced 10 in our use of technology.”

    While technology and its full adoption and mastery is the intent of all area districts, there are other changes that will be made to what have become antiquated traditions in the face of the pandemic, such as the snow day.

Pojoaque Valley

    Pojoaque Valley School District Superintendent Sondra Adams said with the practice of every district student having access to either a district Chromebook or their own private technology becoming commonplace, the classic snow day may become a thing of the past for Pojoaque’s 1,801 (262 special education) students.

    “I would like to see each student having a personal device like a Chromebook be the standard post-COVID,” she said. “This is the world our students will be entering after high school and they need to be prepared. This accessibility to technology will also help us in emergency days. For example, I believe I have called my last student snow day. With everyone being able to work remotely we will call a “remote” day instead of a snow day and students will continue with their instructor.”

    There is also the potential for instructional tools to be created that marries the online system and the traditional system, Adams said.

    “I also see the potential for teachers to post video instruction to help students with homework,” she said. “This will be particularly useful for those students that have to miss class for appointments, are ill or have to be away from school for any reason.”

    Ultimately, the pandemic has exposed many cracks in the system that have forced districts to call multiple audibles, many of which have been positive, albeit difficult to put in place on the fly.

No bullying

    Mesa Vista Superintendent Albert Martinez is looking at the pandemic with a glass half full attitude. Mesa Vista has 247 students, 33 of whom are special education students.

    He said outside the technological and curricular adaptation, the new system has benefited many students and has caused a positive shift on some of the negative aspects of school culture.

    “Bullying has been reduced significantly,” he said. “Groups of students ostracizing others simply doesn’t exist in this environment. For our principles, a great deal of their time was spent dealing with discipline issues. That focus has changed to student engagement and instruction.”

    There are also many students that have flourished without the burden of hours-long travel time and the inherent distractions of the school environment, Martinez said.

    “I have spoken to parents that want to keep the current program going for their children because they are earning higher grades than they ever have,” he said. “Socializing and in-class instruction will return, but why interrupt a system that is allowing some of our students to flourish?”

    The pandemic has forced schools to innovate and shown more ways to aid students.

    “I believe that as a district and profession that we can evolve and take what we have learned and apply it moving forward to maximize the success of our students,” Marinez said.

    COVID-19 has yielded its fair share of challenges, successes and hard lessons and will undoubtedly continue to do so as educators and students weigh into the spring semester.

    Despite all of this however, there is one fringe benefit to the pandemic that educators hope will remain a constant moving into the “New Normal,” the renewed bond between teachers and families, Miller said.

    “Our teachers and families have gained a new appreciation for each other,” she said. “Having a relationship with a student’s family is vital in special education and the pandemic has made those bonds even stronger as teachers and families have to work together more than ever before to meet the needs of our students.”

    Miller acknowledged there have been complaints, but overall parents and families have been supportive.

    “There is a mentality of mutual care and respect for each other and an understanding that we are all in this together and working toward the same goal in an impossible time,” Miller said.

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