Education and inclusion in an age of quarantine

A Vermont special educator shares her experience

Written by: Matthew Schuelka

Welcome to Education Popularis! I’m so glad that you are here. For this inaugural newsletter, we are featuring a conversation with Dana Visser, a high school special educator/consulting teacher in Vermont. Dana shared her experiences of being a special educator during the initial online-only learning phase of spring 2020, and now during a hybrid model of restricted in-person learning beginning in autumn of the 2020-2021 school year. We also spoke about the implications for education moving forward post-pandemic, and the underlying inequalities and ineffectiveness in education that the Covid-era has exposed.  

Learning from home mode

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, nearly all schools went into distance-learning/online mode and stayed that way for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Vermont was no exception, although Vermont has consistently been among the best states in terms of low coronavirus cases and deaths per capita

During the online school period, Dana shared that her job as a special educator was very different than a general education teacher. Her school had no synchronous requirements for learning, although there were synchronous learning opportunities. (In the online education world, ‘synchronous’ refers to learning that is ‘live’ online – e.g. Zoom, GoogleMeet – and ‘asynchronous’ refers to learning that occurs through online materials and activities that the learner interacts with on their own time – e.g. GoogleClassroom, Moodle, or other virtual learning environment.) Each general education teacher put out weekly learning plans with no set schedule, but it was up to the special educators to create distance-learning plans for each of the students with disabilities and also to be the person that taught the weekly learning plan to those learners with individualized education plans (IEPs). “Essentially, my job went from being a teacher to being a support person,” says Dana, “As a special educator I spent all day going from kid to kid to kid … and I was just helping them navigating distance learning and just helping them to get through it.” 

In terms of the work that students were given through weekly learning plans, there was a lot of directing students to existing online learning content like Kahn Academy and Desmos, or through watching videos on YouTube and completing worksheets. The math teachers used EduCreations to get through their remaining curriculum. Dana’s school went from a proficiency-based grading system to a pass/fail ‘show me the work’ model. 

In an asynchronous learning environment, there was no group discussion or classroom conversation, so learning became highly individualized, which puts more burden on students that need extra support. However, students that had distance learning plans received already built-in supports. As Dana reports, “Word was that kids who were on [distance learning] plans were doing way better than kids that were not, because there was already family-school communication that was established, they were used-to getting support, had relationships with their case managers.” More of an issue were the students that were really struggling academically, perhaps experiencing a challenging home environment in which to learn, but did not previously have an IEP. The online learning mode for the spring semester exposed already-existing inequities that existed within the student body. 

Hybrid “Groundhog Day” mode

Currently, Dana’s school is in a hybrid model of restricted in-person learning: half the student body in school for two days, a synchronous online day in the middle, half the student body in school for the other two days. While students are in school, there are a lot more restrictions on movement in the classroom and there is no group work. “There’s this Groundhog Day effect – you teach the class to the first kids, and then you turn around and do it all again with the second group of kids … In some ways, the second kids benefit because you realize what you should do better the second time.”

Teaching and learning is changed in the hybrid mode, as students work individually at their socially-distanced desks and not in groups. Hands-on application activities, like lab experiments for science classes, have been altered to also be individually administered. One other thing that is challenging for teaching is figuring out what to do for the online synchronous day in the middle of the week that is supposed to bridge the two groups of students (Mon/Tues group; Thu/Fri group). The Monday/Tuesday group has already had the lesson for the week, but the Thursday/Friday group has not, so lesson planning has become fairly challenging. “What we have settled into,” says Dana, “is more of a waterfall/cascade approach” with both groups essentially moving in parallel curriculum, but one group being always two-days ahead. 

Challenges and Silver-Linings

According to Dana, there have been some upsides to both the complete distance-learning mode, and now the hybrid-learning mode. Every student learns differently, so some have really thrived and benefitted from more freedom and flexibility in more of a self-motivated learning environment. However, many students have been challenged by this kind of learning environment that places much more pressure on the individual student and also strips away social and group learning opportunities. This puts a lot more pressure on teachers to try to bridge the gaps to meet the needs for all students. 

There has also been an increased awareness in learning accessibility and effective communication. Dana states, “Everything needs to be communicated to students and be available to their families, because they are the people that are supporting them, whereas before … a lot of my time and energy was spent asking ‘what did you do today?’ ‘What did you do in class?’ ‘What is it you are expected to do?’” Now there is much more emphasis on effectively sharing class information, assignments, support, and expectations in one space (in their case, Google Classroom). 

Another positive change that Dana has observed is a re-think in the school schedule. Her school moved away from an A-B day schedule (8 classes total; 4 classes/day alternating across two semesters) to a 4-class block every day for a semester, then switching to the other 4 classes for the other semester. This change has supported students that struggle with focus and executive functioning to really stay with, and keep up with, the subject for longer. The draw-back is that a block-schedule means that the material has to move twice as fast. 

Matt’s Note: In my own high school experience, I had four different scheduling systems in my four years in high school, so I know only too well the many types of schedules that are out there in American high schools. Look for a future newsletter on this topic that takes a deeper look at the evidence, pros, and cons to the many different school schedules that are out there. 

Students with really high needs in Dana’s school attend every day of the week, engaging in the academic work but also opening up their schedule to allow more social skills and life skills work. In speaking about supporting a particularly high needs individuals, Dana says, “What’s been cool is that it has pushed us to be better for all the kids. There were more hands-on learning opportunities that we sent home with the kids like ‘mystery bags’ that [the students with more significant needs] could be a part of, supported by his parents at home.” 

In talking about inclusive education with Dana, we discussed the inequities in schools that already exist, to which the Covid-19 pandemic quarantines and home-based activities have only exacerbated the challenges.  Dana shared, “I have a kiddo who is in DCF [Department for Children and Families] custody who lives with his guardian and probably will not graduate high school now because of Covid…. He had such a thin thread that was keeping him at school in the first place and was so tenuous. That kind of stuff is so frustrating … despite so much effort.”

So much of the direction of travel for individual students has come down to the support (of lack thereof) of their families and home environment. This has benefitted some students, and challenged others. Some students basically receive constant 1:1 tutor support in their home learning environments if the parents/caregivers are able to provide it, and are moving ahead of their peers; while others receive nothing and continue to slide backwards. Again, this is not a new phenomenon in schools and learning, but it has been greatly accelerated because of the pandemic. 

Dana is fortunate to have a very supportive school district and educational leadership team. They have been supportive, open, and communicative. This makes a huge difference in the efficacy and culture in any school, but especially now in a constantly-changing and challenging world. The state of Vermont has also been supportive and, despite being a small state with limited resources, was able to provide a generous amount of personal protective equipment (PPE), KN95 masks, hand sanitizer, and more investment in school nurses. Like all states in the United States, what that looked like between school districts was varied. (As the New York Times poignantly writes, there are 13,000 school districts in the United States, and 13,000 different responses to the Covid pandemic.) In Dana’s school district, teachers were also involved in most aspects of the planning – from curriculum, to logistics, to health and safety. The teacher’s union in Vermont is strong and was very effective in working with educational leadership and policy-makers during the pandemic. 

This was not a universal experience for teachers, even in Vermont. Dana has other Vermonter teacher friends that feel less supported and are often left in the dark in terms of information and communication from leadership. This came down to specific school districts and schools themselves, and really points to effective leadership skills in organizations in general. Dana argues, “A lot of it has to do with a systems-level approach, and good systems being in place. Right now you need extra good systems. Before if you had mediocre systems you could just get by, but without having stellar systems it exacerbates the problems. You can really see it.”

Lessons for the Future

Looking ahead to a post-Covid future, Dana expressed hope that the distance-learning/hybrid modes of learning will challenge some of the existing paradigms and orthodoxy around what learning looks like and what makes a ‘school’. Dana made a really poignant statement on this:

“People’s minds have had to open up to new ways of teaching. They’ve had to let go of certain content, or proficiencies, or expectations. They’ve had to learn to design things that students can do independently without support. Like a forest fire. It’s very disruptive and destructive, but allows for fresh new growth.”

The experiences in the past year also raised questions on the future of assessment and exams. Dana says, “This year we don’t have midterms and finals. Oh my god! I’m so glad. It was this relic that has always just been there that we kept just doing it. It just felt unnecessary, and people were not doing it in creative ways.” There was no state testing in Vermont in 2020, and colleges and universities in Vermont suspended the SAT requirement. It doesn’t seem that these things were missed by many people, and the hope is that the primacy of high-stakes assessment and evaluations will diminish now that an alternative world has been revealed. However, it looks like state assessments may indeed return in 2021The future of the SAT and other college-entrance exams looks less certain.

The pandemic also made us all realize the importance of meeting basic needs and what kinds of tools are necessary for 21st century learning. All of the sudden, everyone needed internet access to learn. Unlike many states, Vermont provided everyone free internet access. Free! Which begs the question, as Dana pointed out, why weren’t we doing this all along?! It was clearly possible before. Vermont also worked in creative and novel ways to make sure that other basic needs were being provided to its children, including meals every day of the week delivered to student’s homes directly. 

Lastly, Dana – and we here at Fora Education – hope that this educational experience during the pandemic has shown that we can be flexible in terms of learning spaces and modes. Children are not robots in factories, and do not learn that way. We should embrace the flexibility and the opportunity to learn in multiple environments – inside, outside, independently, in a group. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that schools matter in our society, both for the children’s sake as well as for their parents (!). The pandemic has exposed the inequity in societies that children carry with them to the school just as they do their backpacks. Humans are social creatures by nature, and learn best in social environments. However, the pandemic has also shown us that schools do not need to be ONE thing, and that learning can be resilient and effective anywhere as long as our children are being supported and their basic needs are being met.    

Next Week…

Join us again next week for a post written by Aida Layachi, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham, on the experiences of parents of students with disabilities in Algeria. During most of 2020, because of the pandemic, Algeria shut down all of their schools.

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