This story is the first in two-part series on special education during the coronavirus pandemic. For part two, click here.
Nicole Mullen, a special education teacher at Boston Arts Academy in Dorchester, said being able to work with kids in small, focused groups is part of what attracted her to the profession. But as school closures have forced Massachusetts educators to adapt to instructing from afar, Mullen said she’s lost that ability, and with it, the “vibrant nature of the classroom” that keeps students engaged.
“They're not working on the same things at the same time. Their individual needs are completely different,” she said.
Mullen is one of more than 1,300 special education teachers in Boston public schools, some of whom say they are struggling to meet the learning needs of their students remotely. Twenty-one percent — or about one in every five BPS students — is categorized as having a disability, slightly higher than the statewide rate of 18 percent. Like many teachers in the district, Mullen works with students with a variety of special needs, and she’s passionate about helping students try to overcome them in-person. And technology has its limits, teachers say, when applied to students who thrive on regular routine, eye-contact, and a teacher’s physical guidance through tasks.
“We’re making the best of it, doing things like sharing Zoom pictures with virtual backgrounds and [other] things from home they’re comfortable with, but there’s a definite difference, and a lot is really lost for kids who find the classroom in a building as their safe space,” Mullen told WGBH News. “The biggest challenge for me right now is just the kids being overwhelmed.”
For some students deemed to have behavioral issues, she said new expectations that they manage their time, spend longer hours in front of screens and stay apart from classmates can be difficult.
Mark Greer, a science and special education teacher for seventh- and eighth- graders at the Henderson Full Inclusion School, agrees.
“Those same students who had a hard time trying to be engaged in learning in the classroom, have a harder time when there's no one in the room pushing them to do so,” he said, adding that students in this situation can regress.
“If you have a student who’s just starting to speak for the first time after years and years of education, and then suddenly, they’re losing that reinforcement, I don’t have any idea how long it’s going to take for that student to reengage with that skill,” Greer said, citing one example.
Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union have consistently called for providing educational resources to all students in the district, including those with special needs. The district and the union released early, informal guidance in March that said the goal of remote instruction was maintaining connection with all students.
There has been a bright spot to virtual classrooms, though, teachers say — increased contact with students' families.
“I do a lot more family communication,” Greer said.
But that contact only applies to kids with parents who have the means and time to help their children with virtual learning. In a school district where half the students are economically disadvantaged, and three-quarters are categorized as having high needs, parents are less likely to have the time and resources to help their kids with schoolwork.
That concerns Emma Fialka-Feldman, who teaches special, regular and English learning second-graders at the Dudley Street Charter School in Roxbury.
“There are kids whose needs are not being met, and that’s not ok,” she said, adding that younger students, in particular, typically rely on family members to navigate technology.
Asked which kids’ needs are not being met, Fialka-Feldman said that while she had no data, “We know that wealthy white families who might not be getting their public school teacher to call their child might be having an outside tele-therapy session. But I don't know that that's true for all kids in Boston, particularly kids of color in some of our poorer areas.”
Fialka-Feldman said she’s proud of the hard work teachers are doing, but there’s more work to do to ensure kids don’t lose the skills they have already acquired.
“We have to make sure that we are checking in and working hard to make sure that all kids are growing academically, as much as they can right now, ... even if it won’t be at the standards that we want it to be,” she said.
That uncertain academic growth is distressing to special education stakeholders who are trying to figure out how to make up for lost time when schools reopen.