Teaching Special Ed and English-Language-Learning Students Remotely Presents Special Challenges

Teaching Special Ed and English-Language-Learning Students Remotely Presents Special Challenges

Adjusting to the remote learning environment has been a particular struggle for students who are just learning English, live in low-income households and are in special education classrooms.

“They need a lot of help. This online learning doesn’t allow for that on any level. So it’s very difficult,” said Ms. R, a special education teacher at a Brooklyn elementary school who asked not to be identified as she was not authorized to speak to the media. “I can present the work and I have to hope that somebody in their home is able to facilitate what I’m asking them to do. But the community that I work in, the parents are illiterate, they don’t read in any language. They also are working still – they don’t have the luxuries of, ‘I’m going to take a sick day or take time off.’”

Ms. R has been teaching at a Sunset Park elementary school for over a decade. The school serves a high population of low-income students, many of whom are just starting to learn English. Ms. R works in a self-contained classroom, meaning her students also have significant disabilities.

On a typical day in Ms. R’s classroom, where all of her students are English-language learners, she has the help of two paraprofessionals. “The way it works when I’m in a classroom is I have access to all different materials, and my students learn through visuals and hands-on learning. They need a lot of support, they need a lot of language translation, so I need to be able to present it in English and then my para helps me say it in Spanish or Chinese.”

When New York City schools announced that remote learning would begin on March 23, Ms. R rushed to print 80 pages of worksheets and mailed them to each of her students’ homes. This way, she knew all of her students would have at least some school work they could do even if they didn’t have internet access – a reality for many students in low-income households.

Over the past few weeks, Ms. R assigned those worksheets as well as some online learning activities through Google Classroom. But she knows most of her students are having trouble getting online during regular school times.

“My students are working on phones that their sisters are letting them borrow at the end of the day. I have one student who has an iPad, and that student doesn’t have internet anymore.”

The NYC Department of Education has promised to get iPads for all NYC students. It could take weeks for individual students to get their hands on an iPad, though. The DOE said they prioritized getting iPads to students in shelters, foster homes, and high school students. This week, they began to distribute iPads to students with special needs, and next week they will begin distributing them to students who don’t fall into any of those categories.

In addition to limited access to technology and the internet, Ms. R said communicating with parents has been a challenge. None of her students’ parents speak fluent English. She has one student whose grandmother and caretaker she hasn’t been able to communicate with at all. The grandmother speaks a dialect of Chinese that the school has not yet found a translator to help with, and so all communication has been through the child, who is in fifth grade.

“I can’t teach them [the students] anything new because I can’t expect a parent to know how I do my job,” Ms. R said. “Because it took me a while to figure it out with a college education. Not to mention a parent who doesn’t have that know-how of how to break stuff down for a student. It’s been very difficult.”

In many ways, Ms. R said the rest of this school year is a hopeless case. Her goal for this period of online learning is to keep the concepts that her students have already learned fresh in their minds.

She fears that the loss of the social aspect of going to school and interacting with others on a daily basis will leave lasting damage on her students. “Some of my students just need that social interaction. Like my student is like, Ms. R, I miss you. It’s that one kid who needs that affection because he doesn’t get it at home,” Ms. R said. “He struggles just for that adult love and he’s not getting it.”

“When they come into this classroom, [they hear] ‘good morning how are you?’” Ms. R said. “A little pat on the shoulder, ‘you got it, keep going!’ They don’t get that. So they’re missing so much more than academics.”