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Teachers take on challenge of special education during COVID-19 pandemic

Balboa Elementary second-grader Isabella Tumey is surrounded by a clear plastic curtain because she couldn’t wear a mask during special education instruction on Nov. 6.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Balboa Elementary second-grader Isabella Tumey is surrounded by a clear plastic curtain because she couldn’t wear a mask during special education instruction on Nov. 6. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Now more than ever, it takes a lot of patience to be a special education teacher.

That, and a large supply of gloves.

At Balboa Elementary School in northwest Spokane, teacher Deanna Wilcox goes through dozens of them every day.

Each time she helps a new student – many of whom can’t wear masks for medical reasons – Wilcox must change gloves.

“There’s been a lot of adapting,” Wilcox said.

And yet, Wilcox and many other special education teachers are making the most of a tough situation.

“There has been a lot of adapting to COVID-19 – not just learning but in maintaining a consistent routine,” said Wilcox, who moved to Spokane from San Diego in 2018.

“But special education has my heart,” Wilcox said.

However, that love has been tested.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many adjustments on K-12 education.

While most students have had their routines interrupted, the children perhaps most affected by that disruption are special education students.

“Generally speaking, in special education, one of the strategies that works the best is a structured routine – and that’s gone,” said Leandra Elion, a lecturer in childhood education at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“It’s now parents who must establish that routine, and there is no prescription for what that looks like in a COVID-19 world,” Elion said.

It also didn’t help that many meetings to set up this year’s individual education plans, or IEPs, were delayed by COVID.

Districts are federally mandated to provide America’s 7 million students with disabilities an education tailored to their individual needs under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

That proved almost impossible during the sudden building closures in March.

At most districts, there were no plans to deliver services like occupational or physical therapy to special education students.

Parents of special-needs children have struggled through a trial-and-error process in the aftermath that has combined distance learning with in-person learning.

“It’s another hat for parents to wear,” Elion said.

It’s the same for teachers. At Cooper Elementary in northeast Spokane, teacher Alycia Mata focuses on in-person lessons while a paraeducator deals with online lessons.

It’s not a perfect system – special ed has always been a hands-on discipline – “But we’re making it work,” Mata said. “This allows me to focus on the kids in front of me, to work on reading and math skills that are so important.”

At Balboa, Wilcox said she’s worked hard since last spring to master distance teaching, and to help students do the same.

In the event that COVID metrics continue to rise and force some students back home, Wilcox said that students are becoming more tech-savvy.

One of the biggest challenges is face coverings. Required for other in-person learners, they’ve proven impractical for some special-needs students.

“That’s been a struggle,” Mata said. “But we take breaks, or take a walk.”

At Balboa, that burden has been eased for all students and teachers by the purchase last year of a sensory path, a brightly-colored design intended to stimulate and improve the senses.

“Teachers like it because we’re giving (students) a positive break,” Principal Brenda Lollis said last year. “We’re not seeing as many behaviors because we’re giving them a positive break and a positive out.”

Both teachers praised the district for offering material and other supports.

“We have a really good curriculum,” Mata said.

“And a lot of PPEs,” Wilcox added.

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