On March 31, GISD announced schools would be closed through at least May 1, and all graded school work would begin April 6. But for students who learn differently, the change can be extra daunting for educators.
“I have to praise our teachers who have just grabbed a hold of this and done a phenomenal job,” said Taffani Walker, GISD's executive director of special and federal programs. “The biggest thing that they're doing is just making sure that every student is receiving the individualized instruction that is catered to their specific needs.”
Walker said GISD’s mission is to serve the entire student body and make sure education is designed in the best interest of the students. This, she said, is heightened in special education because each student in her department also has an individualized education plan that is tailored to the student’s learning needs.
For those who have a 30-student caseload, such as GISD special education teacher Kimberly Norwood, that means 30 different IEPs.
Walker added with the move to distance learning, her expert educators are now coaching parents to build the same expertise so they can best help their student at home. She added it can be extra difficult because while one practice may work in the classroom, it may not necessarily work at home.
This has forced special education teachers to create new observational tools that take into account the student is learning in a new environment than what they are used to.
“What [special education teachers] are doing is just individualizing,” Walker said. “All of their planning is for those special education students to make sure they're receiving the services that they need [and] that the families are receiving the support that they need.”
In addition to IEPs, special education students have an Annual Review and Dismissal committee that consists of parents and all interested parties at the school, such as administrators, teachers and other providers such as physical and speech therapists, GISD special education teacher Ashley Norment said.
The ARD helps build the IEP for each student, which includes the goals for the student in each subject where special services are needed, determines which tools will be used to ensure learning, outlines how progress will be tracked adhering to strict state-sanctioned timelines, she said.
Walker said the greatest challenge for the special education department has been the strict timelines the staff has faced, while the best part has been how they have rallied around each other and supported the work.
“[Staff] dove in and took care of their students, each other and worked tirelessly to meet the tight timelines,” Walker said. “There didn't seem to be much relaxation from federal and state agencies on these timelines.”
A Texas Education Agency April 7 special education information packet regarding special education confirmed there is little to no wiggle room for districts and the special needs services for students.
“If schools are closed, but the [local education agency] continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during the closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities,” the document said. “The LEA must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student's IEP.”
Walker said the district is using every platform it can, including consultation, telephone support for both parents and students, video support, and online directed support and learning, to ensure all the students' needs are met, even if it includes physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling and adapted physical education. This requires a lot of coordination, Norment said.
According to the TEA, ARD committees would be required to make an individualized determination as to whether compensatory services are needed to make up for any skills that may have been lost because of an extended school closure.
Norment said it can be more difficult for special education students to learn virtually because not all can navigate technology on their own or are able to sit in front of a computer and work a mouse.
“The hardest part for me so far is thinking outside of the box,” Norment said. “My students are different from the majority of learners in that they're not always able to physically access things on their own.”
The need for extra creativity in reaching students was felt by many GISD special educators, including Norwood, who said for the first week of graded learning, she made three individualized worksheets for each of her 30 students and coordinated with each parent to see if it was better to email the sheets or have printed copies made available.
She—like all teachers—is adjusting on the spot. Thinking on their feet is not new to teaching, but not being able to tell if something is working in real time and adjusting accordingly is.
This is especially difficult with students in special education who tend to have a hard time working on their own or concentrating without direction, she said.
“You just got to give [lessons] to them and, hope that they're going to understand it and then hope that their parents are actually going to give it to them to try it,” Norwood said.
GISD special education teacher Amanda Sanford said it is difficult to ensure she remains in compliance with special education guidelines and all of her student’s needs are met, but the work is not the hardest part. Harder than the challenges of learning new teaching platforms and researching new techniques that work digitally as well as redoing weeks of plans is not seeing her students, she said.
“The hardest part is not getting the see our students for sure,” Sanford said. “You know, just missing them ... and not being around them.”
Walker said if there is one thing for parents to know at this time is how much teachers care for their students.
“Our staff is doing a fantastic job of tailoring the learning to family and student needs every chance they can while they learn new tools to provide new types of supports,” Walker said.
For more on what GISD is doing for special education, click here.