Back to School with Special Needs

By Beth Luna

While we most likely agree that every student is challenged in one way or another as we head into the 2020-21 school year, special education students face additional hurdles. 

Generally speaking, many special needs students require one-on-one assistance or small group learning to be successful in school, and they do better with multisensory methods of teaching. Because of this, many area parents were left hoping for at least some in-person learning for their kids come the new school year. While Prince William County Schools (PWCS) will open with an all-virtual model for at least the first quarter, the system will be offering four day per week in-person services to special education students with the input of their individual education plan (IEP) teams.

“The biggest challenge is that not every student is able to engage fully in the virtual format,” said Michelle Roper, Director, Office of Special Education for PWCS. “We will continue to be as creative as possible in these instances. We are all in for getting through this time together and ensuring that our families of students with disabilities know that we are here for them now and moving forward.”

PWCS is currently working on IEPs for special needs students through virtual team meetings with parents, the goal being that everything will be processed by the start of school. At press time, information was not available on whether students would be at their current school with their known teachers.  While many families are relieved, there are some questions. “Virtual  learning with a familiar teacher versus in-person with someone unknown can be a tough choice to consider,” said one parent. “That is why all these decisions need to be made individually with the involvement of parents and teachers alike.” Another mother, while happy about the decision, was worried about sending her child back to a near-empty school, having them walk down quiet hallways past empty classrooms.

The pivot to unplanned home learning last spring had some benefits to parents but was generally challenging. “Distance learning started great, reviewing the materials my son had learned,” said a parent with a rising fifth grader at J. W. Alvey in Haymarket. “Being a working mom, it was a great opportunity to enjoy being together and to observe his daily routine.  We kept the same schedule, and lots of great resources were shared by parents and teachers. However, supplies ran low and were hard to find, and trying to work full time and teach full time was exhausting. My son needs one-on-one instruction or a small group, someone to sit next to him and remind him to focus.”

Another parent, who works for PWCS and also has a rising fifth grader at J. W. Alvey had hoped for some in-person teaching for hands-on learning and behavioral support. “One positive is that my daughter became more independent when working on a touch screen computer, but she still requires an adult sitting with her to stay on task.” she said. “Some weeks, I was so busy with work myself that I didn’t have time to work with her, nor did my husband who works full time, so we supplemented by having a neighbor do lessons with her.”

“Routines are something that benefit students and adults alike, and in many cases families were able to adjust to the new format, hard as it was,” Roper added. “We have learned a great deal about what works with our students that we can use in the future. We found that providing engaging activities and tools worked best, so we will increase our capacity to provide those to our students that need them.”

All of the parents we spoke with benefited from seeing the day-to-day work that the teachers and their children undertake, which helps everyone moving forward, even to in-person school time. “I have always known that consistency, repetition and putting things to music are keys to her success,” said one parent, “but being her ‘teacher’ solidified how true that really is.  And, when I watched videos where curriculum materials were put to music, I was amazed at the things she knew!”

For kids with special learning styles and needs, the social interaction at school, even with its ups and downs, is irreplaceable. Another parent, who also has a rising fourth grader at J. W. Alvey, commented on how the lack of social interaction during at-home learning was hard on her son. “The situation was very challenging; the teachers were amazing but the social interaction and life skills they develop at school are key,” she said. “My daughter has tons of peers to turn to, but my son has a harder time finding playmates that really get him.”

Parents praised the PWCS teachers and staff for their hard work with the students during at-home time, as challenging as it was for everyone involved. “From senior administrators to teacher aides – their hearts were truly in their virtual jobs,” said one parent. “My son’s teachers went above and beyond to not only provide instruction, but also to provide the love and support our kids need!”

In one way or another, all of our kids will be back at school in September. While it may look different, PWCS plans to offer the students with varied learning needs the same toolbox as before the pandemic, which is good news to these families.

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