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District 91 has been teaching remotely since the beginning of the school year, with teachers and families working hard to overcome obstacles presented by the onset of distance learning last spring.

But working with children with special needs brings a unique set of challenges, from teaching nonverbal primary-level students, to figuring out how to provide physical and occupational therapy, to convincing middle-school students to keep their cameras on during Zoom lessons.

The Review talked to members of the D91 Student Services team, including school workers and special needs teachers, to get an idea of what the school year has been like so far for educators and families during distance learning.

According to Michelle Hopper, director of student services, D91 teaches about 225 children with special needs, not including those with IEP (Individualized Education Plans) or 504 plans. Their needs range drastically, from kids who are nonverbal to those who need physical therapy or occupational therapy, and there are a multitude of combined needs that include all ages, from preschool through eighth grade.

How, for example, do you teach nonverbal kids over Zoom?

Kathryn Callahan, primary special education teacher in the district, said she works with three students who don’t speak, and she’s developed and uses adaptive materials to help with communication.

Thumbs up and thumbs down pictures on popsicle sticks allow the students to voice their opinions without speaking. She uses color boards, on which a color corresponds to an answer, and students can point to or hold up the correct answer without needing to talk.

Amanda Skinner, special education teacher at Betsy Ross, says one of her students uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, allowing the child to participate in group discussions even without the ability to speak.

Physical and occupational therapy, important components of education for some students, have seen changes too. Hopper said both PT and OT are still happening, though in some cases they’ve taken on a different form.

“The physical therapist might use dance videos,” said Hopper. “Or incorporating movement into Zoom sessions. If we’re working with a student on gait, for example, and depending on whether there’s a guardian at home to assist, we might have them practice walking up and down the stairs at home.”

Handwriting, something students might work on in occupational therapy, can be a challenge too, and a lot of it depends on who’s supervising the student during the day and whether or not that person can help.

“Some of it is working from the parent’s perspective,” said Hopper. “They can help us help the student move toward mastering a goal. It’s definitely a challenge, and we’re trying our best, but it’s much easier in person.”

The necessity of involving parents, however, has been a “secret blessing,” Hopper said. “It’s given us the opportunity to show parents why we do some of the things we do, or why we structure lessons the way we do. Especially at the preschool and primary level, it’s been nice to let the parents see the full picture of what goes on during the school day, to better see the correlation of why a therapist or teacher might push for a certain lesson or why the social worker and speech therapists are collaborating on something.”

Skinner agreed. “The parents are the ones with the children, so we support the parents to support the kids,” she said, adding that she thinks there’s a huge benefit to teachers and parents integrating and collaborating more than ever before.

Hopper said the biggest surprise with the special needs students has been the high level of participation. In the spring, when remote learning started, some families dropped off. But once school began again in the fall, the district saw many of those families return.

“Parents are more engaged than ever,” said Jennifer Braun, eighth grade special education teacher in D91.

Tahnee Andersen, who works at Garfield with preschool students with special needs, said for her young students, the parents’ role in distance learning has been crucial.

“Without our parents, for most of my students remote learning would be near impossible,” Andersen said. “Our parents are with their child throughout the entire Zoom, helping them with hand over hand or prompting a response when it is their turn.”

She said she started the school year with doubts. Would the children participate? How would they sit still? What would the interactions be like?

“They are really shining,” Andersen said. “Everything we send them home is adapted and hands on. We incorporate dancing and movement to get them up and energy going. They want to participate and share an answer. They’re excited to hear their name every day.”

And she and the district send all assignments home with step-by-step visual and written instructions for the parent or guardian on how to complete the activity so they can help their children complete the work.

For the social workers, some of the goals they’re working on with children are different from what they were pre-COVID. For example, said D91 social worker David Droy, a child who became overwhelmed and needed coping skills for the intensity of activity or noise at school might not feel the same way sitting at home at the kitchen table.

“We’ve adapted the targets to be more generalized social skills,” Droy said. This, he said, will give the kids a good base of coping skills so when they do go back to school, they’ll be able to adapt more easily.

There are some families in the district, however, that just can’t commit to everyday learning. Some of these kids, said Hopper, had a one-on-one aid during school days when learning was in-person, and the guardians simply can’t sit next to their child all day because of work or other issues.

So the district meets the families where they are, willing to provide whatever help is needed.

“We’re here to support our families in any way we can,” Hopper said.