Special needs students, parents, struggled during remote learning

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Inspired by solutions from the 1918 flu pandemic, Esther Kennedy, the student services director for Gilford School District, erected a 100-by-70-foot tent outside the elementary school and set up six-foot-long tables. While most other districts in the state were still only doing remote instruction, Kennedy launched in-person summer school for the most vulnerable students, including those with special needs. (Photos courtesy of Esther Kennedy)

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series that takes a look at how school districts across the state responded to the challenges of remote learning and plans for improvements in the fall

Esther Kennedy, the student services director for Gilford School District, is a bit of a history buff. So when she realized that the coronavirus was reaching pandemic levels, she looked back to the 1918 influenza pandemic to see how educators coped. 

“They used tents,” she said. 

Kennedy was inspired. She erected a 100-by-70-foot tent outside the elementary school and set up six-foot-long tables. While most other districts in the state were still only doing remote instruction, Kennedy launched in-person summer school for the most vulnerable students, including those with special needs. Although some parents were skeptical at first, Kennedy welcomed them to drop by the tent and observe teachers maintaining 6-foot distance and donning masks and gloves when they needed to come closer. Before long, most of the district’s special needs families had signed up for outdoor instruction. 

“We’re having great success,” Kennedy said. 

Many New Hampshire students and families struggled with the transition to remote learning, but for students with special needs the challenges were especially large. About 17.7 percent of New Hampshire students have special needs, according to 2019-20 estimates used to determine state aid to localities for the cost of providing an adequate education. That metric covers everything from learning disabilities to autism spectrum disorder, socio-emotional challenges to physical disabilities. Many of these students and their parents faltered with remote learning and some supports — including physical therapy and occupational therapy — couldn’t be delivered at all during distance learning, according to educators who spoke with the Collaborative. 

“For kids with disabilities, the issues were bigger,” said Bonnie Dunham, educational law and policy specialist for the Parent Information Center, a state-wide organization that supports students with special needs and their families. “Some kids, especially with more complex needs… just found it extremely difficult to benefit.”

Kennedy was acutely aware of that. From the beginning of remote learning she continued to deliver classroom instruction to a small number of students with the most severe disabilities, like low-functioning autism. 

“I wanted to give those families support,” she said. “I realized that we had made so many gains. I didn’t want to see them regress.”

Although Kennedy’s approach was unconventional, she had some advantages on her side. In Gilford, roughly 9 percent of students are special needs, according to Kennedy, a population lower than the state average. The district is also relatively well-funded. Perhaps most importantly, Kennedy has been in her role for 23 years in the district, and the administration, school board and families trust her deeply, she said. 

“Some people might have wanted to do this, but did not have support,” she said. 

Learning from Remote Instruction

Kim Di Salvo, director of student services for SAU 48 in Plymouth, describes herself as a “glass-half-full” person when it comes to remote learning.  

“I think it will just change us in education,” she said. “When we’re back in school we need to take the opportunity to do some teamwork and to reimagine how we can continue to deliver special-ed services a little differently in order to be better prepared to reach 21st-century learners.”

While she didn’t give specifics she highlighted lessons learned during remote learning in the spring such as collaboration, communication,  problem-solving, being innovative in the use of information technology and the ability to tap into new learning resources.

Remote learning allowed educators to tap into learning resources that were well-suited to students who are digital natives, she said, although she declined to name specifics. 

SAU 48 covers nine districts. Overall, 17.4 percent of students in SAU 48 have special needs, according to data from the district. That’s about average for the state. 

Like most districts, instructors in SAU 48 had a steep learning curve this spring. Suddenly special educators were helping students and families not just with challenges outlined in the students’ IEPs — individualized education plans — but also with things like bedtime and creating structure when everyone is stuck at home. 

The instructors were building the plane as they were flying it, Di Salvo said, but they soon began to see some positives. Getting to peek into children’s homes and have more contact with families gave educators a better understanding of their students. Without needing to switch classes on a set schedule, instructors could dig into students’ problem areas. Even the district’s visually impaired students did well, once instructors figured out which accommodations they needed. Visually-impaired high school students, for example, benefitted from virtual college tours and open houses.

“That all takes time, trial and error,” Di Salvo said. 

With time, paraprofessionals — teaching staff who support special needs students — recognized that they needed to concentrate not just on core academic skills, but also on giving students social interaction. They started doing some games and social sessions remotely, which helped keep students engaged. 

“When you’re in school, it’s not just learning,” Di Salvo said. “That social piece is really lost in remote.”

Similarly, parents relied on the school staff not only to teach students, but also to provide support and consistency. 

“The most important message that we learned was that it was really important to offer families calm support,” Di Salvo said. “There’s a lot of anxiety associated with uncertainty.”

Di Salvo is optimistic that with the additional time over the summer to plan remote learning, it will be even more successful in the future, if the need arises. Now, remote instruction is another tool available to instructors, and Di Salvo sees a place for it with or without a second wave of the pandemic. Students who are undergoing medical treatments or who are struggling with social anxiety at school could receive some instruction remotely, for example. 

“That’s exciting to me as a special-ed director. In-person learning still is the most effective learning, but how can we supplement it with some of this remote stuff?” she said. “Just think about a snow day now!”

Below: Percentage of special ed students by town

With A Small Special Needs Population, Additional Resources

In Kearsarge Regional School District, based in New London, only 12.2% of students have special needs, according to Larry Elliott, director of student support services. Although none of the districts’ students continued in-person instruction, the district committed to keeping paraprofessionals and special needs support staff employed through the pandemic so that special needs students would have a high level of support, said Michael Bessette, assistant superintendent in Kearsarge, who oversaw the switch to remote learning. 

“We wanted to make sure services students were getting in the physical world moved into the virtual world if at all possible,” Bessette said. 

That didn’t happen in all districts, said Dunham, of the Parent Information Center.

“There were some areas kids couldn’t get service because staff wasn’t available.”

Kearsarge even supplied its 81 paraprofessionals with Chromebooks so that they could attend remote classes alongside students and provide additional instruction to special needs students afterward if needed.

Bessette said that his district’s financial resources allowed Kearsarge to support special needs students more intensively than some other districts were able to. 

“Many of our colleagues [in other districts] don’t have access to those same necessities,” Bessette said. “Frankly we were in a good position…. We do have poverty in our district but as a whole, the district is in a different position from other districts that are not as well positioned financially.”

Even so, Kearsarge educators struggled to reach all students equitably. In some families parents were unable to be closely involved with instruction because of work obligations, while others struggled with access to the internet and devices. Special educators tried to accommodate those differences and modify services — for example by delivering instruction in the evening when parents had more time to participate, said Elliot. Still, some students were not able to get all the services they needed to thrive during remote learning. 

“If we couldn’t rise to the challenge with accommodation and modification, we’re going to work with families in future to make up those gaps,” said Bessette. This could mean offering additional sessions to students when in-person learning resumes. 

While that commitment is appreciated by many families, parents also worry about students’ schedules becoming overwhelming with compensatory services this year, Dunham said. If a student is already being pulled from class to receive physical therapy, for example, more time away from the classroom to make up for sessions missed during remote learning might not be beneficial. 

“Parents are worried about how are you going to add more stuff to that and [maintain] a quality school experience,” she said. 

Protecting Special Needs Students During Remote Learning

Dunham is concerned about New Hampshire’s special needs students if remote learning continues fully or partially through the 2020-2021 school year. 

“People really tried, and in some areas they were really successful, but in other areas kids fell through the cracks,” she said. 

Not just kids, but families, are vulnerable when special needs services are delivered remotely, Dunham said. She recalled speaking with one parent, whose child was adopted and had socio-emotional setbacks. For years the parent had worked to nurture a bond with their child, and was deeply concerned about disrupting that bond by stepping into the role of teacher as well. 

Even without those added complications, many special needs parents weren’t able to take on the role of teachers, either because they were essential workers or because they had more than one child to care for and educate. Special needs students — by definition — need specialized instruction that most parents aren’t qualified to provide, Dunham said. 

“We heard from a few people who said ‘I just can’t do it.’ Their kids fell further behind,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t care about education. They just can’t do all of it.”

Most of the state’s residential schools, which serve students with the highest needs including mental illnesses, shut down during remote learning, leaving both parents and educators floundering to meet children’s needs. 

“There was no safety net and zero time to plan,” Dunham said. “That was the group hit hardest of all.”

Some of these schools have begun taking students back. However, Crotched Mountain School, a residential campus in Greenfield that serves 79 students, announced in June that it will close in November, in part because of the financial impact of the pandemic. This will further strain the residential special needs system in the state, Dunham said. 

Even special needs students who could cope with the academics of remote learning experienced social and emotional setbacks. 

“Special needs children come to develop relationships with peers through a long process,” said Dunham, whose own child has special needs. “My son is an adult now, but I would have been afraid about how long it would have taken to rebuild those relationships.”

This year, some kids with special needs will need remote instruction because they’re medically fragile. Others should be prioritized for in-person instruction even if the whole district is unable to return to classroom instruction full-time, Dunham said. 

“Kids with disabilities sometimes need exceptions. They need people to do things a little differently.”

Overall, flexibility for special needs students and their families is key to helping them survive and thrive during the pandemic. Giving more instructors the chance to think outside the box, like Kennedy has been able to do in Gilford, would benefit special needs students, Dunham said. 

“When people sit down and say ‘how can we make this happen,’ in the majority of cases there is a way,” she said. “It’s just not a way that hasn’t been done before.”

Coming tomorrow: Story 7: Access to Technology, Family Communication, Make Remote Learning Difficult for English-Language Learners

⇒ Click here for an overview of the series.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org


About this Author

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a New Hampshire-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington PostThe Independent, Oprah magazine and more. Kelly covers personal finance, mental health and other topics. She's currently working on a memoir about traveling the United States by RV with her husband and two young children.