Serving Students With Special Needs in an Online Era: Q&A With Suzanne Jimenez

In a recent online meeting with educators from across the country, HMH’s Director of Academic Planning and Analytics Suzanne Jimenez, along with her colleagues, asked administrators to contribute descriptors of their teachers in order to form a word cloud. Some of the words that came up were “stressed,” “overwhelmed,” “tired,” and “exhausted.” Even so, Jimenez walked away from the meeting with the sense that, despite the exhaustion, teachers were open to learning new strategies for delivering better instruction online to help students, including those with learning disabilities, succeed. Educators are coming to realize that teaching is going to be different from now on, Jimenez says—and they have to be prepared.

As a former special education director herself—she’s worked in Virginia’s Loudon County Public Schools and Arlington Public Schools—Jimenez knows this won’t be easy. She once took a course on online teaching when she was an adjunct professor at George Mason University, and she found herself frustrated by the difficulties. “I stopped doing it. I was like, ‘I’ll teach all day long in person.’”

Of course, circumstances have changed and she has learned a lot since then. Jimenez sat down with Shaped to talk about the unique challenges special education teams face in navigating remote learning, and how they can best serve their students through it all.

Brenda Iasevoli: What advantages does online learning have for students with disabilities?

Suzanne Jimenez: It allows students who aren’t able to attend school to access the classroom. Even a static platform where they can engage in asynchronous learning is a huge advantage for them. The same goes for students with temporary disabilities like a leg break, or students who are undergoing chemotherapy. Remote learning allows them to continue their studies right along with their classmates.

BI: Did you do remote learning for students with disabilities in the districts where you worked?

SJ: We did have remote learning in place for students on homebound instruction—students who had long-term or short-term disabilities. We even purchased a robot that provided video, allowing students to see and hear what was going on in the classroom.

BI: If you were still a special education director, what would you say to teachers and parents who are stressed right now about the loss of learning time and the uncertainty of the future?

SJ: There’s a lot of learning that could happen at this time, and it doesn’t have to be teacher- or parent-directed. Take advantage of all the free, quality resources out there. Encourage play, mindfulness, and rest. And don’t expect everything to go perfectly. I think we all just need to take care of each other right now, pull together, and support each other as best we can. We saw this happening with parades in front of teachers’ houses for Teacher Appreciation Week. And we see it when teachers drive through neighborhoods to see the students they miss so much. There are some good things happening, and I think we need to keep them front of mind and, as much as possible, keep finding things to celebrate.

“Encourage play, mindfulness, and rest. And don’t expect everything to go perfectly.”

BI: Do you have any tips for parents who are teaching kids with learning disabilities at home?

SJ: I hear so many parents saying, “We can’t get this done. My child is crying over schoolwork.” I would tell parents to take a step back. This is a time when the typical expectations about students completing assignments really need to be set aside. Instead, they can focus on encouraging their child’s curiosity, taking the time to look around their homes and neighborhoods for connections to what they are learning. I’ve seen so many neat things where students are creating obstacle courses in their backyard or creating patterns with sidewalk chalk. And, of course, kids are going to want screen time. Parents can turn on captions on their TVs to promote literacy.

BI: What are some of the biggest obstacles for special education teachers when it comes to remote learning?

SJ: They have the responsibility for instruction just as general education teachers do, with the added responsibility to fulfill procedural compliance requirements. That’s really daunting right now. They are tasked with finding out if students are engaging in learning, and if students are receiving the supports and services they need. Teachers must also document what’s happening, and they have to do all this remotely.

The heart of special-education teaching is to figure out what’s needed for each student, one by one. For students with visual impairments, this is a big flip of the switch to make sure they can continue to get access to all the materials that are being provided. Some districts provide print packets, but a student with a visual impairment might need the materials enlarged or in Braille. There’s a lot to think about, but all of this can be figured out and added to the school’s remote teaching plan going forward.

BI: Do you have any sense of how special education teams are handling the challenge?

SJ: I have learned that the biggest bright spot is the collaboration between special education teachers and general education teachers. Some teachers have thought that they didn’t have time for collaboration during a regular school year. That thinking has gone out the window. They are figuring out how to work together in innovative ways. The effort has sparked some professional collaboration and co-teaching that we weren’t doing before.

BI: What kinds of innovation have you seen?

SJ: Two teachers delivering a morning meeting remotely is a challenge. I’ve seen teachers who are really adept with the technology pass the teaching back and forth seamlessly, finding a rhythm and keeping the flow of the classroom going.

Special education and general education teachers have also been creative about figuring out how to use platforms like Zoom or Google classroom to share best practices, along with the metrics on how often students access learning and what supports they are getting.

BI: What about schools and districts? How are they supporting special education students in innovative ways?

SJ: A lot of districts are doing teletherapy for related services like speech, OT [occupational therapy], and PT [physical therapy] and are reporting great things. When I was a district director, I was hearing a lot about teletherapy, especially for speech, because speech pathologists are in such high demand and in short supply. But I wasn’t sure about it back then. Now we’re finding out it’s the best thing since sliced bread. It provides the opportunity for students to continue therapy, and it even allows schools to expand services in some areas that are pinched for related service providers.

“The biggest bright spot is the collaboration between special education teachers and general education teachers.”

BI: What do you suggest special education directors prioritize for the beginning of back to school?

SJ: We know all students will experience learning loss. A skills-based assessment, particularly in reading and math, will be essential. Amira for Grades K-3 would be a fantastic way to assess reading. I’m biased, of course, but I know the power of Amira. In the districts where I worked, we did one-on-one early literacy screening at the beginning of the year using paper and pencils. We would lose three weeks of instructional time, no matter what. It’s just so time intensive. But with Amira, you could pretty much assess your class on the first day, and you’d have automated reports and be ready to go.

BI: What would you prioritize for professional learning if you were still a director of special education?

SJ: I’m partial to an offering from our Math Solutions and Literacy Solutions groups, which helps teachers learn how to teach online. I’ve been hearing from special education directors across the country that teachers don’t know how to teach online, to really use the tools they have to advance student learning. They need professional development that helps them figure out how to get student engagement online, and that helps them extend learning past the 30-minute Zoom session. Now we have technology that can facilitate the different types of activities teachers would like to do with students, but they don’t know how to capitalize on them. That’s what special education directors are looking toward now: How can my teachers provide good instruction using online platforms and get students engaged in learning?

BI: Would you train special education and general education teachers together?

SJ: Directors will vary on this. I’ve always felt strongly that they should do professional development together, because good instruction is good instruction. That’s how you’ll be able to figure out, say, how to support a student with processing issues who is going to do activities online. What are the highly-effective strategies that I can use to help that student understand this concept better? Special education and general education teachers can benefit from answering this question together.

BI: To what degree do you think special education will be hampered by budget constraints?

SJ: Budget cuts will affect everyone, no question. For special education, federal funding has never lived up to the promise. So, you have to be creative. You need collaboration at the district level. It helps to have a superintendent who’s committed to ensuring students with disabilities get the resources they need. Say the budget only allows for one teacher for every 20 students. Where you have real leadership, you can provide an instructional model that is more supportive and find other ways to pay for things. Are there other activities that we may have to do differently? Funds aren’t going to be easy. Everyone is going to suffer greatly. Money will be tight, but with the funds you do have left, a strong commitment from top leadership will help to ensure that the everything that can be done for students with disabilities will get done.

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