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How Online Learning Impacts Special Education

By Ally Rau

Online learning has impacted us all, but it has created a set of unique challenges for special education students. When schools closed in early March of 2020, many students had to learn how to manage a new schedule. This was a major change for special education students, as they were used to having a set routine and familiar space to learn. Routines and consistency is a major part of many special education students' success. It allows for students to know what they can and can’t do and helps build confidence in their strengths.

As schools across the country, including La Follette High School, continued to teach those with disabilities, programs had to get creative to ensure that they had all the right tools to continue to follow special education students' learning plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP is a contract that outlines what the school will provide for the individual student every year to help them succeed in their studies. On March 12 and March 21, the US Department of Education ensured that all students with disabilities would continue to receive all of their required services under the Rehabilitation Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This was to ensure that all special education students would receive the same education that they received during in-person school. Teachers at La Follette have been following IEPs to ensure everyone gets the correct accommodations, but they have also been using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) an online learning program that creates an equal opportunity for all students. “UDL offers flexibility in the ways students access material, engage with it, and show what they know,” Susan Filo, a special education teacher at La Follette, said. The most important part of online learning is making sure that you are meeting the needs of all students and finding what works best for each student.

During virtual learning, special education students are able to choose what they would like to work on. “During virtual instruction, most classes offer a great deal of student choice,” Filo said. “This not only benefits students with IEPs, it helps all students to engage and experience success.” When students have an opportunity to choose what they would like to do, they are going to be more engaged in their learning and retain more information.

With everything happening online, many students are falling behind on getting the extra practice they may need to remember what they learn. Some special education students across the U.S. have not received the correct instruction needed to progress in their learning, which creates more challenges for parents. While many lessons are possible to do over Zoom, there are also many hands-on exercises that are not. La Follette has allowed some students to have the opportunity to get hands-on learning in a safe space. “For a few students with IEPs who are unable to successfully access virtual learning, we do offer some in-person instruction on a limited basis, in a socially distanced, safe manner at La Follette,” Filo said. This is an opportunity to teach those who need extra instruction while being safe.

Many special education students have the opportunity to collaborate with two teachers over Zoom, or they are able to work one-on-one with a teacher. “Many classes today have two teachers, which means more support and differentiation for all, even in the virtual world,” Filo described. “For students with significant disabilities, a Special Education Assistant may work with them virtually and support them in class either 1:1 or with a small group of students.”

While schools across the country are doing what they can to support special education students, there is only so much that they are able to do over Zoom. Many parents have had to quit working to be able to take care of their child who may need extra support and become both the parent and the teacher after students weren’t able to return to school.

La Follette special education teachers and support staff are continuing to learn about what is working and what is challenging, but most importantly supporting all students to the best of their ability. Everyone in the program has shown incredible resiliency. “The important thing is that we all learn, grow and continue to support each other during these times,” Filo exclaimed. All of the staff are doing what they can to make sure that every student is getting the best education possible, even while being online.

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