Helping Our Most Vulnerable Students Put Their School Lives Back Together After More Than a Year of COVID
November 12, 2021
November 12, 2021
By Tom Allen
The effects of COVID-19 have been brutal on all our public school students, leaving no segment of the youth population unscathed. But, as so often seems the case when times are hard, the most vulnerable in our communities may have suffered the most. The enforced isolation and disruption of important routines brought on by the pandemic have been especially debilitating to some.
Consider, for instance, the plight of students with disabilities, who include children and young adults dealing with a range of mild to severe cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and behavioral needs. For a young person dealing with a disability, even “a slight change in their routine has a huge impact on their development and ability to learn,” notes a report from Harvard Medical School. Because many of these students couldn’t understand why they were unable to go to school, the report adds, teachers and caregivers were left with the difficult task of trying to explain why they must learn from home for an extended time.
Many young people with disabilities also find almost their entire social lives at school, and some, like those on the autism spectrum, have had great difficulty adjusting to new circumstances.
Making things even more difficult is the fact that some special education services are almost impossible to provide remotely and, given the individualized approach educators must create for students with disabilities, there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer.
The pandemic has been similarly hard on English Language Learners, who now account for about 10 percent of public school students nationwide (8.5 percent in Virginia), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Century Foundation (tcf.org) reports that ELLs had a disproportionate likelihood of not having access to the equipment, online connections, and/or the digital literacy skills needed for virtual classes. They, too, were hit hard by pandemic isolation, which sidetracked language and academic development, and likely faced family challenges as well, as ELLs often come from communities of color and/or immigrants. Many face other barriers, as well, such as a lack of school information in their home language, a shortage of educators who can communicate with them, limited access to jobs with living wages, and insecurity related to their immigration status.
COVID demonstrated how important being in school can be for our youngest students, as well. Children in preschool through third grade rely on early childhood education to lay the foundation for the academic, linguistic, social, and emotional skills they’ll need to succeed as they grow. Many of our youngest children lost access even to remote learning during the pandemic and also lost out on the important socialization experience of being in school.
So, as the 2021-22 school year gets into high gear, educators are dealing with several groups of students who, in addition to the extra challenges they normally face, are coming off a year that was far from normal. Meeting their needs will be difficult, must be a priority, and will take significant investments in resources, staff, and time.
Our schools are filled with dedicated education professionals who are qualified and ready to take this on, but it will take time. It takes time to build the kind of relationships that change the trajectory of young people’s lives—and that means we must focus on how we’re staffing schools.
How Some Virginia Educators are Responding
To see how individual educators can help students overcome such obstacles, we spoke with several members of VEA’s Special Education Committee.
There’s reason for optimism, says Diane Outlaw of the Education Association of Norfolk. “I am hopeful,” she says. “I feel students will recover, and so will educators. We have experience with students who need learning support, and we believe we can do it together. We note students’ needs and aggressively move to meet them. We are undeniably working with a lot of unknowns, but we feel good about how we’re moving forward.”
The first step for many educators is looking after the social and emotional health of these most vulnerable among our students. “The one thing I can do individually to get my students back up to speed is to allow them a safe space to express their feelings, fears, and frustration,” says Shari Diggs of the Newport News Education Association.
Kim Hasty, also of NNEA and 17-year veteran of the special education classroom, agrees. “My students have missed the socialization of friends in the past year and a half,” she says. “The first thing to help get each student up to speed post-pandemic is to have morning and afternoon groups. Social groups are a non-negotiable.”
Nevine Youssef of the Loudoun Education Association is using a variety of strategies to make up for lost time. “I’m using research-based reading programs that enable my students to enhance their reading readiness and comprehension skills,” she says. “I also make a lot of file folder activities that fit my students’ academic needs. While some students are completing the file folder activities independently, I am working with others in small groups. In addition, I use puppets while reading books to my students to make the content engaging and exciting. I continually assess my students and collect data.”
The task set before our teachers is made more difficult by class sizes and understaffing. “All this needs a lot of planning and preparation,” says Youssef, who chairs VEA’s Special Education Committee. “When you work in a self-contained classroom, you are the therapist and speech-language pathologist. I am overwhelmed. Since the start of the school year, I have been going to school very early in the morning before my contract hours and staying after my contract hours, often until 6:30 pm. I just started to leave on time this week for the first time because I am starting to get burned out.”
Hasty feels the pressure, too. “I’ve been the only special education teacher in my entire K-5 building,” she says. “The expectations of a caseload of 25-30 students are very high, as if I had another teacher or assistant to support me. I want to see equity for every child.”
Outlaw believes understaffing keeps her from being able to move as quickly as she’d like. “Having limited help means slowing everything down—pace-setting, setting the tone and connecting to students,” she says.
The Way Forward
The National Education Association has pulled together a list of ways that we can protect and advance our most vulnerable students. Here’s some of the NEA advice:
Supporting English Language Learners
Here’s some advice on how to help your ELL students, from The Century Foundation:
Educating Our Educators
Giving our most vulnerable students the help they need is going to require outstanding, updated, and ongoing staff development for the educators working with them every day.
Youssef can point to some very specific needs. “I’d like to see something about creating social-emotional learning lessons,” she says, “and on writing good IEP goals while taking into account methods to collect data if we much switch back to virtual learning. I’d also like help learning to develop ‘make and take’ fun activities for all subjects for students with autism.”
Hasty would like to see some long-term thinking, suggesting an after-school strategy for reading or math designed to meet students’ most pressing deficits. “It could be a two- or three-year program that follows the growth of students,” she says. “For example, a reading program that continuously builds on the development of students and where change is genuinely recognized. It should be free for all children, whether after school, on weekends, or bi-weekly. Educators can depend on doing remediation without jeopardizing classroom rigor and scaffolding to give the students support.”
Carlene Eller of Accomack is looking to make sure everyone is thriving. “I think we need professional development focusing on supporting each other, as well as our students,” she says. “We all need it. Let’s make sure to have mental health workshops for staff and students.”
Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.