Brrring! The sound of the opening bell signals the beginning of a typical day of school. The school doors swing open, and the sounds of giggling students fill the hallways as they rush to their classrooms. Teachers stand in the hallways greeting students, encouraging them to put their belongings away and get started on their morning classwork. The children unpack their backpacks and store their personal items in their lockers, cubbyholes, or desks, all the while chit-chatting with their peers.

“What are we doing today, Teacher?” a curious student asks.

“Now, Teddy,” begins the teacher, “you know where to find the answer to that question.”

“Oh, yeah,” agrees Teddy. “I forgot to look at the daily routine on the board.”

Teddy glances at the class schedule posted on the board in the front of the classroom. He then looks at the list of objectives organized by subject (see Appendix for an example of a class schedule). The entire day is outlined on the schedule. Throughout the day, math, science, social studies, reading, and writing are all covered using a variety of materials, from books and papers, to videos and Websites. Students often look forward to a break from the academic courses during the periods that cover physical education, music, and art.

For all students, and specifically students with special learning needs, classroom instruction begins from the opening bell to the closing bell, and it is a joint effort by administrators, teachers, maintenance and office staff, librarians, cafeteria staff, and volunteers to keep all the students on task and engaged throughout each day and week of the school year. The same is true for the teacher in the one- or two-teacher school with a teaching principal; however, the support system might include parent and community volunteers, teacher aides, and others who provide assistance. It takes an entire school staff, large or small, to educate a student, and the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” accurately reflects what happens in many classrooms around the world.

Some students require extra time or assistance to begin or complete tasks. Others may require specialized tools or instructional materials to enable them to access and complete academic tasks. These students may or may not require formal special-education assistance. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion students have had their education interrupted and moved to online platforms; however, this number does not include students who have special learning and physical needs, those who “are marginalized, disadvantaged, or “invisible” in educational systems.”1 According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), approximately 15 percent of the world’s population live with disabilities that can make day-to-day life difficult without some form of intervention, and this includes children and young adults enrolled in schools. Less than 10 percent of countries have law that support education for all students. 2 UNESCO, in collaboration with the Global Action on Disability (GLAD) Network, has called on governments to make online education and accommodations available to all students, specifically through use of proven methods of adapting curriculum to meet learners’ needs. They have also called on governments to provide support to educators and families so that these needs can be met.3

Within the United States, large and small public schools have access to resource professionals from within the public school system; and, when students need extra help with assignments, there are specialists available to work with them to ensure the students understand and meet their academic goals. These support services are publicly funded.

The 2004 U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was designed to ensure that children with disabilities attending public schools receive a “free and appropriate education.”4 Several other countries have similar government mandated programs to support students with special needs.5 IDEA outlines guidelines and procedures to assist schools in identifying and developing Individualized Education Plans (IEP) to help students with special needs achieve maximum academic progress. An IEP details the extra supports, modifications, and/or accommodations a student may need to help him or her successfully navigate classroom expectations.

However, these regulations do not apply for children whose parents enroll them in private schools since private schools are not included in IDEA guidelines.6 Private schools in the United States are bound, however, by Section 504, a civil-rights law. Section 504 upholds the rights of children with disabilities to have equal access to education and protects them from discrimination.7 Under this mandate, private schools are required to provide modifications, accommodations, and opportunities (e.g., extra time on tests, assistive technology, ramps, tutors, etc.) that will help the child succeed.8 Through a program called Child Find,9 public school districts are required to identify children in the district that may need services, and this includes children attending public schools, private and parochial schools, and children within the designated school district who are homeschooled. As a result, students in private schools can be eligible for services paid for by public funds once assessed by a team of professionals (e.g., special- and general-education teachers, specialists, and/or a related service provider). This assessment results in what is called an Individualized Service Plan (ISP), which outlines accommodations and modifications that the child needs. Funding for ISPs are limited, however, since most funding goes to service students enrolled in public schools.   

Regardless of the availability of funds, once a child has been identified as being in need of services, U.S. private schools and educators are required to provide any and all tools, strategies, accommodations, and/or modifications needed to enable students to access the general-education curriculum as outlined in the ISP.10 One example of an ISP accommodation may be that a student needs to have handwritten or printed notes prior to or following a class discussion/lecture. For example, if a teacher is working on a lesson about the planets of the Solar System, then he or she must provide access to copies of discussion notes, a study guide, or a copy of peer notes from the lesson.

Learning During the Pandemic

But what happens to these procedures during a pandemic?11 What can be done to ensure that student needs are met, and how can schools help parents meet these needs? How do teachers and parents explain to children that they will no longer be going to school for classes? How do they help them deal with their fears about the coronavirus, the unprecedented quarantine, and the possible virtual reopening for the next school year?12

Unfortunately, as we now know, the normal school day may not return for some time; a “new normal” has begun. Administrators and teachers have worked feverishly behind the scenes to turn their physical classrooms into virtual areas of learning. This means that parents and families also have had to help children adjust to this new normal. Although classrooms, labs, recess, and field trips, may look very different during virtual school, teaching and learning must still happen. Teachers who have students who struggle, require additional help, and/or has an ISP must work collaboratively with parents and individuals responsible for instruction at home to ensure that students’ learning needs are met. How can teachers provide the additional support and/or help parents help students meet the requirements of their ISP in the in-home classroom?

For many parents, the “new normal” of having to also be a teacher has created a sense of frustration and stress for both parents and students. Teachers and parents working together can help reduce student stress and help young people navigate the online, virtual classroom by using a few tested strategies and techniques. These strategies are also effective for students who in a paper-based system and are not accessing school through virtual platforms. Maintaining a regular daily routine, establishing a classroom setting for academic learning, creating visual schedules, using strategies to address visual needs, and encouraging peer socialization are simple and effective steps that teachers and parents can take to create a positive learning environment that will provide additional support for students as they navigate their online classroom and written assignments during remote learning.

Routines

Most students benefit from keeping a regular routine. For students with special learning needs, maintaining routines is key for having a successful day. During this time of quarantine, hybrid instruction, and frequent changes, teachers can communicate to parents that it is even more vital that students maintain a regular routine. Students enrolled in online learning will have a regular start and end time to their day; some schools might reduce the number of online in-class time so as to not overwhelm students with so much screen time. For students at home, where instruction is primarily facilitated by the parent or other individual responsible for instruction, these routines should be maintained (see Box 1: Tips for Parents). Students will be able to focus better when they have routines that are similar to the ones at school.

Visual Schedules

A student’s entire day is filled with routines. Most teachers post their daily schedule in the classroom. Students with special learning needs may have a visual schedule posted in the classroom and/or on their desk. Visual schedules are used to provide students with a quick reference regarding the layout of their day. This strategy is especially useful during online learning since teachers can still post the virtual schedule and refer to it often throughout the class period. This virtual prompt provides the student with a quick visual of what his or her day looks like. Reviewing the schedule at the beginning and end of the virtual session can help students to stay on task and refocus.

Teachers can provide parents with a copy of this schedule, which can be posted in a prominent place in the home where it is readily visible. Each day, parents can reinforce what the teacher has done by reviewing the schedule prior to and at the end of the day. This is a good way to help students process and prepare for the next day, and can be an easy reference point to help students refocus. Visual schedules are easily made by using pictures from magazines, actual objects (juice boxes, crayons, etc.), or pictures printed from smartphones and placed on index cards or Post-It notes. For older students, activities can be written on the card instead of using pictures. For some students, it can help to allow them some input in designing/developing the schedule. Examples of visual schedules and pictures can be found online (see Appendix for links to visual schedule examples).

Breaks

When building a schedule for the virtual classroom, teachers should be sure to include frequent breaks and a time for lunch. Preplanned breaks give students an opportunity to take time away for intense focus. Parents and those facilitating instruction at home should also include preplanned breaks during the period that the student is not in a scheduled virtual class. One effective way to do this is to coordinate breaks so there is limited interference with parental work requirements (see Box 2: Ideas for Breaks or “Recess”).

Classroom Setting

The design of the virtual classroom environment can make a big difference for students who have difficulty focusing, are easily distracted, or have issues with noise.13 The virtual environment should have clear, simple, uncluttered layouts. Content should be projected using large, bold, and high-contrast fonts on plain backgrounds so that it is easy to read. If preparing videos, include captions. The virtual classroom requires that information is presented in as many ways as is possible. For example, teachers must plan to make use of text, video, audio, and images when sharing information, and allow students to demonstrate learning in a variety of formats, as well. There are several resources online that provide helpful tips for creating accessible online classrooms. See Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT): https://www.washington.edu/doit/20-tips-teaching-accessible-online-course.

Similarly, teachers must encourage parents to set up the in-home classroom in a space dedicated for learning. The designated area should be free from distraction and excessive noise. If a separate room is not an option, they will need to work with what is available and find a space that can be designated as a “classroom” workspace. By using their creativity, they will find ways to enable the student to be a part of the process of setting up the workspace in a suitable location.14 (See Box 3: Suggestions for Classroom Setting.)

Reduce the Impact of Screen Time

An unavoidable consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools is the increase in screen time. According to Heather Kelly, “Families can feel powerless to control how much screen time schools are tacking on to their children’s days, especially when they need some of it to get their own work done.”15 As a result, schools and teachers must include in their policies ways of limiting screen time. Some schools are already doing this by limiting the number of hours students are required to be online in virtual contact with the teacher during class, or by implementing a block schedule that allows students to alternate classes throughout the week.16 This is helpful; however, more screen time is always a challenge. Sitting and looking at a computer screen for long periods of time is not good for anyone’s health. For children with special needs, especially those with visual disabilities,17 too much screen time can cause visual fatigue and physical distress such as eye strain, neck stiffness, dry/inflamed eyes, and digital motion sickness.18 Teachers can suggest several helpful strategies that parents can use to help reduce the negative impact of computer screens on their children’s eyes:

  1. Position the computer/computer screen so that the child will have to focus his or her eyes downward.
  2. Use an anti-glare screen if possible. These are easily purchased for minimum cost online or anywhere computer accessories are sold.
  3. Place a small notepad and pen beside the computer, and encourage the child to frequently look away from the screen and to take notes or doodle.
  4. Place small fidget cubes or objects in a container next to the computer to give the child something else to look at while listening to the instruction. These may also be a distraction, so use your best judgment when finding ways to engage the child in the lesson without his or her having to look at the screen for long periods of time.
  5. Another suggestion is to limit additional screen time. Find other activities for children to decompress from academic tasks. Young people do not have to be sitting directly in front of the screen to be an active participant in the activity. Position computers and tools in such a way that it allows them to divert their eyes and body, to provide rest from continuous contact with the computer screen.

For additional information, see the Appendix for classroom accommodations for students with visual challenges.

Socialization

Socialization is a vital part of the school experience and the most difficult to replicate during remote learning. There are many ways teachers can incorporate cooperative learning in the virtual classroom even if children are nervous and do not want to speak during a synchronous (live) online class. Providing students with the option to share a video recorded response to an online assignment can help them develop oral presentation skills. There are other activities teachers can do with students such as making or building crafts or projects, or baking or cooking food. Students can share their projects or products with their peers or community members through safe delivery to a neighbor’s front door or through a virtual platform. Using Zoom, Google Meet, or one of the many online platforms to go on virtual field trips around the world is another way for students to interact, learn together, and apply the academic skills they have learned in school while practicing socialization (see Appendix for Virtual Field Trips).

Beyond the classroom, parents, or those facilitating at-home school might consider arranging playdates and social time for students since this is an important aspect of remote learning that should not be overlooked. There are numerous apps that enable young people to play games and read books with peers, adults in the community, and grandparents. Caribu and Together are two apps that allow students to FaceTime with parent-approved peers to play traditional games such as checkers and connect-four as well as read books together with friends (see Appendix for link to Caribu and Together).19 For younger children (e.g., preschool and kindergarten students), peer interaction can take place using inflatable or hard-sided wading pools appropriately distanced and arranged in a backyard or common area. Students can play in their assigned pools with toys and talk with one another (toy selections can be preplanned so that students and have the same toys). Teachers and parents working together can come up with unique, fun, and safe ideas for socialization.

Conclusion

In many parts of the world, schools are still uncertain regarding what reopening format to adopt for the 2020-2021 school year. Some schools are continuing with virtual/remote schooling through the end of 2020 while others have announced that they will begin the 2020-2021 school year with in-person face-to-face instruction (see Appendix for talking points about the coronavirus and the classroom).

The strategies and information provided in this article can be used throughout the school year. Keeping students organized and on task may initially require substantial work. However, the long-term benefits of assisting students during these unprecedented times will help to increase their level of academic success. When teachers work with parents and those responsible for at-home school to collaboratively think outside the box, students can have a variety of experiences in their in-home classroom. Being creative is the key to helping all students stay focused and engaged in academic learning whether in a school building or in an in-home classroom.

This article has been peer reviewed.

Annie Raney

Annie Raney, EdD, is an Associate Professor of English at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, U.S.A. In addition to a Master’s in reading education from Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, she holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, U.S.A. She also taught grades K-8 for 12 years and served as an education professor at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, for six years. Dr. Raney is passionate about integrating technology in the classroom and helping students improve their reading and writing skills.

Veronique Anderson

Veronique Anderson, MS-SLP, EdS, is a speech-language pathologist in Sterling, Virginia, U.S.A. She has 34 years of educational experience as an educator in grades Pre-K through 9, higher education, administration, and leadership in both the private and public sectors. Her passion is working with children with autism, and she is a strong believer in every child’s ability to learn.

Recommended citation:

Annie Raney and Veronique Anderson, “Helping Children With Special Needs During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Journal of Adventist Education® 82:3 (July-September 2020).

NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. UNESCO Bangkok, “Empowering Students With Disabilities During the COVID-19 Crisis,” (May 4, 2020): https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/empowering-students-disabilities-during-covid-19-crisis.
  2. Ibid., UNESCO Bangkok;  __________, “UNESCO Report on Inclusion in Education Shows 40% of Poorest Countries Did Not Provide Specific Support to Disadvantaged Learners During COVID-19 Crisis,” (June 23, 2020): https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-report-inclusion-education-shows-40-poorest-countries-did-not-provide-specific-support-0.
  3. Global Action on Disability (GLAD) Network, “General Statement of the GLAD Inclusive Education Working Group in Response to the COVID-19 Crisis,” (2020): https://gladnetwork.net/search/resources/general-statement-glad-inclusive-education-working-group-response-covid-19-crisis; Including learners with disabilities in COVID-19 education responses (April 6, 2020): https://en.unesco.org/news/including-learners-disabilities-covid-19-education-responses; UNESCO, Policy Brief: A Disability-inclusive Response to COVID-19  (May 2020): https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Policy-Brief-A-Disability-Inclusive-Response-to-COVID-19.pdf.
  4. IDEA: Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (n.d.): https://sites.ed.gov/idea/.
  5. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Disability, “Disability Laws and Acts by Country/Area” (n.d.): https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/disability-laws-and-acts-by-country-area.html.
  6. Becky L. Spivey, “Are Special Education Services Available for Students in Private Schools?” HandyHandouts (2020): https://www.handyhandouts.com/pdf/410_SpecEdServices.pdf.
  7. Ibid.; Wrightslaw, “Discrimination: Section 504 and ADA AA,” (January 6, 2020): https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.index.htm#:...
  8. Geri Coleman Tucker, “Six Things to Know About Private Schools and Special Education,” Understood For All, Inc. (2014-2020): https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/choosing-starting-school/finding-right-school/6-things-to-know-about-private-schools-and-special-education.
  9. Wrightslaw, What Is Child Find? (July 31, 2018): https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/child.find.index.htm; Andrew M. I. Lee, “Child Find: What It Is and How It Works,” Understood for All, Inc. (2014-2020): https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/your-childs-rights/basics-about-childs-rights/child-find-what-it-is-and-how-it-works?_ul=1*u23gla*domain_userid*YW1wLTlJX0pzeVpfbGlfMzdZc1ZoZFVPTmc.
  10. Wrightslaw, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) (January 16, 2020): https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/iep.index.htm; See also Tucker, “Six Things to Know About Private Schools and Special Education.”
  11. 11. Eleesha Lockett, “What Is a Pandemic?” (March 2020):https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-pandemic#pandemic-vs-epidemic.
  12. See Appendix for links on how to discuss the pandemic with children. See also the article by Davenia J. Lea, “Supporting the Learning, Growth, and Suc­cess of Our Students in the Face of Trauma” available at https://jae.adventist.org/en/2020.82.2.5.
  13. Liz Krudler, “How to Keep Students’ Attention in a Virtual Classroom Teachers,” Edutopia (June16, 2020): https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-keep-students-attention-virtual-classroom; Access Computing, “Online Learning Strategies for Students with Disabilities,” (May 5, 2020): https://www.washington.edu/accesscomputing/sites/default/files/doit-sync/files/Online_Strategies_5_5_20.pdf.
  14. Terry Heick, “Twenty-two Remote Learning Tips for Parents Helping at Home,” Teach Thought (July 2020): https://www.teachthought.com/technology/remote-learning-tips-for-parents/.
  15. Heather Kelly, “Kids Used to Love Screen Time. Then Schools Made Zoom Mandatory All Day Long,” The Washington Post (September 4, 2020): https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/04/screentime-school-distance/.
  16. One example of a modified scheduled is the reopening plan for Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Schools, “Reopening Schools Plan―Full-time Online Instruction” (2020):https://www.fcps.edu/returntoschool/reopening-schools-plan-complete-information/full-time-online-learning-request. On Mondays, all students participate in asynchronous, independent learning, and students with English-language learning needs and special learning needs who require additional instruction meet with their resource teachers. On Tuesday through Friday, elementary students in grades PreK-2 are in school for three hours per day, or three and a half hours for grades 3-6. These students receive synchronous, teacher-directed instruction in core subjects. Of that time, one hour per day is dedicated to extracurricular classes such as music, art, and physical education. Middle and high school students have a block schedule that alternates courses Tuesday through Friday. This schedule is designed to give students more time away from the computer screen.
  17. Kate Bratskeir, “Eight Physical Risks of Too Much Screen Time” (November 2015): https://www.huffpost.com/entry/technology-health-physical-effects_n_564a1df4e4b045bf3df03368/.
  18. WebMD, “What Is Computer Vision Syndrome?” (n.d.): https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/computer-vision-syndrome#1; For more on the challenges of increased screen time, see Heather Kelly, “With Remote Learning, It’s Now Screen Time All the Time,” Washington Post (September 6, 2020): G1, G4;
  19. For more on protecting students during social interaction online, see “Protecting Student Privacy: Learning From COVID-19” by Annette Melgosa and Ernest Staats, available at https://jae.adventist.org/2020.82.2.3.