CORALVILLE — Jozlynne Varner finally began to open up last school year, expressing herself in her writing, sitting with other sixth-grader at lunch and looking forward to heading off to school in the mornings, her mother said.
“She loved going to school,” Sarah Varner said of her 13-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum. “We had never experienced that before.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and every school in Iowa — including Jozlynne’s, Coralville Central Elementary — closed indefinitely.
Weeks later, when schools began providing virtual education, elementary and junior high students in the Iowa City Community School District had access to voluntary learning opportunities, which Varner said were self-paced and largely unstructured.
The saving grace, Varner said, came through a screen: As the school closure stretched into the summer, Jozlynne and her special education teacher started weekly video meetings. They weren’t the student’s typical math, reading or socialization interventions, but sometimes she and her teacher would talk for an hour about what Jozlynne was working on and how she was doing.
Those check-ins will continue through summer, as education officials at the state and local levels grapple with how to resume full instruction for all students this fall without an end to the coronavirus pandemic yet in view.
“I don’t think we’re in the new normal yet. I think we’re in the new transition to normal — whatever that might be,” said Barbara Guy, the Iowa Department of Education’s special education director. “I do believe we have opportunities to make it better. … Whatever becomes that new normal, I think we can make it better than what it is.”
Public school districts are finalizing Return to Learn plans, due to the state Education Department by Wednesday, that should detail how they will equitably and appropriately provide education to all students, including those who receive special education services through Individual Education Programs.
Districts should be prepared to resume classes in three formats: an entirely distanced format, most likely virtual, although districts can choose to deliver hard copies of materials; through in-person instruction back in classrooms; and in a hybrid of both distanced and in-person teaching.
As the Iowa City district developed its plan, officials have met with parent groups, including specifically those of students in special education, and conducted parent and staff surveys. The district is establishing a process to review every Individual Education Program and add a “remote learning plan” to each, said district spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen.
“For each IEP, teams will consider how services will be adapted, accommodated, or modified to fit the individual’s needs,” Pedersen said in an email. “We will look at what parents or caregivers might need to support students with remote instruction and we are working to ensure access to technology, as well as any additional required items, should remote instruction become necessary.”
A survey of about 9,750 district parents — about 7 percent of whom reported having children in special education — found about 59 percent preferred resuming school on-site. About 30 percent of parents who completed the survey preferred a hybrid model and 10 percent favored continuing virtual education.
Asked about at-home learning this spring, 22 percent of parents said they were extremely or very satisfied, 34 percent were moderately satisfied and 43 percent reported being a little or not satisfied at all.
Even Varner, who was happy with her family’s education this spring, said she hopes for more structure if virtual schooling resumes.
Molly Yates, whose 9-year-old son received special education services at Wickham Elementary in the Iowa City district last school year, attended the district’s meeting for special education parents June 11.
“I think that while we (special education parents) were understanding and want it to be fair and equitable, at some point, we have to get back to meeting these kids’ needs,” Yates said. “Hopefully, this fall they will have thought of some awesome ideas for meeting these children’s individual and unique needs — which is what special education is all about.”
Special services for her son, who has an anxiety disorder, seemed to vanish when schools closed, Yates said.
Earlier in the school year, his anxiety had escalated into refusing to do any schoolwork, and Yates started home schooling after Thanksgiving. But her third-grader still was returning to school for special education services, which involved learning how to take direction from a teacher, regulate his emotions and develop coping skills.
“What I found this spring was that it was impossible,” Yates said. “To the school’s credit, what could they do? To us, it was like we lost every bit of it. We were in a unique situation. At the same time, it became nothing.”
At times, it felt as if her son’s special education teacher wanted to do more, she said, but had been told to provide only so much direction.
That was a sense shared by many when school districts first began to provide virtual, voluntary services in April, state Special Education Director Guy said. But it was “a myth,” she said, one she worked to dispel among educators and doesn’t expect to resurface as schools reopen.
But there’s no doubt, should schools resume in a virtual or hybrid model, that special education will be different from what students would experience in a normal, on-site schoolday, Guy said.
“What we’re really, really hopeful about is that we can get in front of a conversation so that IEP teams, which include the family, can be proactive in their thinking,” Guy said.
The state is asking each IEP team — made up of educators and parents or guardians — to add contingency plans for continuous learning should a student not be able to return to school again. Guy said the state Education Department expects to release more information for IEP teams July 9.
Addressing students with behavior and social-emotional needs — like Yates’ son — this spring was particularly difficult in a virtual setting, Guy said. For the fall, she said schools will try to better prepare parents to take on the role of an instructor.
“Unfortunately, many of the things that we’re talking about have to have physical interaction with a student,” Guy said. “If it’s virtual, that’s really hard to do. Somebody has to be there in the room helping in some way, and we think the more we can build that instruction into the natural routines of a family, the easier that will be, on both sides, to provide direct instruction, as well as not ask too much of a family.”
Guy acknowledged that could concern working parents.
“The thing I know about special educators is that we are really creative, and we can find another way to at least make it better — maybe not make it as good as it could be if we’re together, but we can still address it and make it better,” she said. “I don’t want to mitigate from that, it’s going to be a challenge. But we’re already finding that we can do more than we ever thought we could.”
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