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Check-ins crucial for exceptional children: Teachers, families adapt during virus outbreak

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Like every other student sent home from school for weeks on end because of COVID-19, Kelly Jones misses her friends and her teachers.

Kelly is an 18-year-old 11th grader at Hunt High School, and she’s one of 1,051 students in the exceptional children program in Wilson County Schools.

“She’s bored,” said Sandy Harris, Kelly’s mom. “She loves to stay engaged, so after she finishes her classwork, we try to find other activities to keep her busy, but it has been really hard.”

Remote education has been interesting for Kelly.

“It’s fun, but I miss my friends and my teachers,” Kelly said. “I see them on Zoom a lot.”

Kelly’s teacher set her up with Google Classroom, an internet service for distributing and grading assignments.

“If she has any questions, the teacher has been very on hand to step up and help when needed,” Harris said. “She can text the teacher or call the teacher or send them a message through Google Classroom. It has been very helpful.”

Kelly has been sent instructional videos and is given daily living worksheets in reading and math. She works on them from lunchtime to about 2 p.m. each day.

“It has been very helpful,” Harris said. “She has enjoyed being able to continue with the classwork because she enjoys it, but she misses her friends. I think this has been very hard not being able to sit in the classroom and see her friends. She loves her teacher, so it has been hard with that.”

Kelly’s teacher calls two or three times a week and leads Zumba exercises over the laptop with Kelly and her classmates.

SPECIAL CHALLENGES

One out of every 12 students in Wilson County Schools is in the exceptional children program.

Each has some form of disability that requires special attention from teachers in order to ensure that every one of them has the opportunity to develop intellectually, physically, emotionally and vocationally.

No two students are alike. Each has his own individualized education program, or IEP.

In almost every case, students have multiple teachers handling various aspects of each student’s progress.

When the order was given to close schools to thwart the spread of COVID-19, exceptional children, who have considerable one-on-one engagement with teachers throughout each day, presented a special challenge to educators.

“During this ordeal we are experiencing because of COVID-19, the manner in which all instruction is provided will look very different,” said Wanda P. Dawson, interim executive director of exceptional children for Wilson County Schools. “Federal laws provide flexibility in determining how to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Appropriate special education and related services can be provided virtually, online or telephonically. Students with disabilities will continue to have access to their specially designed instruction outlined in their IEP to the greatest extent possible.”

Wilson County Schools has exceptional children from ages 3 to 21. Among them are 61 in pre-kindergarten, 413 in elementary schools, 260 in middle schools and 317 in high schools.

Because some may not be able to use computers, teachers facilitate learning in a variety of ways.

“When technology imposes a barrier, teachers still meet their legal obligations by providing students with disabilities with alternatives when delivering services,” Dawson said. “We know that our teachers know their students better than anyone else and are the best person to determine the specially designed instruction for each of their students. We encourage our teachers to work closely with parents to help facilitate interaction during instruction time when needed.”

‘AMAZING JOB’

William Davis, an 8-year-old New Hope Elementary School student, has autism.

Jessica Davis, William’s mother, said being home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a benefit to William in ways.

“I have to be honest and say we are probably doing better than a lot of children just because my son happens to like to be home. But he is just getting a lot of support. He has occupational therapy, speech therapy and his self-contained teachers and assistants all checking on him every week,” Davis said. “So the teachers are just doing an amazing job.”

William’s OT teacher will send the family logins for the Seesaw app to get activities the family can access by phone or computer.

“There will be these choices of activities, they call them choice boards. You can choose something that is appropriate for your particular child,” Davis said.

“You can imagine in any class, but especially self-contained classes, there is a real range of abilities and there is a real range of what the parents are actually able to do every day in a far as how much time we are able to dedicate to the lessons and that kind of thing,” Davis said.

“I am fortunate right now because I am not working right now, and my job right now is just to take care of my kids, so I have been able to delve into it at least for a few hours a day with frequent breaks.”

William’s speech teacher holds audio calls combined with some email activities that she sends Davis for her son.

“They are visual aids that help them make a connection between their speech goals and their reading and their visual cues,” Davis said. “I will sit with my son during those audio calls and help him point to the answers and then speak and work on getting his vocabulary to the level that it needs to be for his IEP.”

William’s regular education teachers and special ed teachers work weekly and conduct weekly check-ins or wellness checks.

Davis said the teachers aren’t grading, but she says it’s important for them to see that William is at least responding to their check-ins and attempting all the exercises they are sending.

“If we are not responding within a day, they will check back with us and make sure that we were at least able to log in and get what they sent,” Davis said.

With the weather being generally mild, William and his sister, Claire, have been able to get plenty of exercise.

“We have been great. I have to be very grateful that we haven’t been stuck inside during a time when it is either really hot or really cold,” Davis said.

“We have not qualified for physical therapy, so what I do is give him plenty of PE time. That’s what I call it, going outside,” Davis said. “That’s his favorite. We have a trampoline, and he’s a happy boy out there.”

CASE-BY-CASE BASIS

Among the specific challenges that exceptional children teachers face is time.

“Even during this pandemic, the clock continues to tick regarding deadlines,” Dawson said. “IEPs may expire, 90-day timelines may expire, and placement by the third birthday may not be possible. Even though it is understood that these meetings may not be able to be held, we tend to beat ourselves up about expired deadlines because we are programmed not to miss them.”

Dawson said teachers and administrators are trying their best to meet the deadlines.

“It is difficult to do under the constraints that are currently in place,” Dawson said. “The decision to hold an IEP team meeting must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. Teachers are encouraged to work with their parents to establish a reasonable extension of time for annual reviews that have expired, 90-day timelines that have expired or third birthday placements that have come and gone.”

Harris said Kelly’s teachers have been accessible during this time away from the traditional school setting.

“I think they have done a really good job,” Harris said. “The teachers have been really good with the one-one-one if they need it. She can call them. If she needs something, the teacher will pick up and answer and help her and guide her.”

“Basically, they are proactive,” Davis said of William’s teachers. “It’s really great.”

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