Though schools closed Monday, March 16, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 virus, one of the special education teachers at Lighthouse Community High, an East Oakland charter school where I also teach, had geared up for a busier-than-usual school week.
His schedule was packed with one-on-one virtual check-ins and writing conferences to support his 11th- and 12th-graders.
Despite these efforts, he is concerned about his students falling behind. “I’m worried that we’re going to see students come back in a deeper hole than they’re already in,” he said, citing the greater internal motivation required to succeed in remote learning.
As schools scramble to move learning online, educators across the country fear that remote learning will deepen existing inequities. How will the students who often require the most support — students with special needs — fare without daily accountability and timely teacher support?
As a teacher at Lighthouse, I know our charter school has some advantages that make remote learning possible. My principal said that we were “scrappy,” i.e., able to move in a way that a larger district school might not have been able to, and thus well situated to rapidly transition to new types of distance learning.
Fundraising has allowed us to have a laptop computer for every student. While 91 percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, less than 6 percent of my students are without internet access at home and less than 2 percent do not have smartphones. I also know that the majority of our students have relatively mild learning disabilities, compared with students at other schools who might need, for example, a one-on-one classroom aide.
Here’s what we did at Lighthouse:
- Teachers were told on Wednesday to prepare four weeks of curriculum by 4 p.m. Friday. The special education teacher for grades 8-10 helped me develop needed accommodations for my lesson plans. On Monday, March 16, I streamed a lesson to my ninth graders using Instagram Live, explaining what an annotated bibliography is and answering real-time questions. The live feed was my students’ idea, brainstormed in a hurry after school on Thursday after the closing was announced.
- Teachers surveyed students March 12 for current student and family phone numbers, who had internet access at home and who had a working computer.
- Many teachers handed out paper packets before closing and administrators also mailed out paper packets to every student. Knowing that there was a chance we would be closed for the rest of the year, I also passed out my students’ next book — “Purple Hibiscus,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
- Most of my students will work online. For those that can’t, I created a paper alternative. For example, I just texted a student who sent me a photo of her annotated bibliography, written in her notebook.
Long-term school closures look increasingly likely thus it is imperative that school districts come up with plans that serve all students.
Instead, concerns over serving students with special needs and a lack of directives from the state have left some districts wobbling on whether to implement remote learning or require no learning at all. Districts should make it a priority to serve students with special needs, but not by discontinuing school for the rest of their students.
A memo from the Office of Civil Rights issued on March 16 emphasizes that school closings are not an excuse to slack off on services to students’ specialized learning needs. Yet at least one district in Washington state has paused online learning specifically because of concerns that it was not accommodating all of its students and thus open to a lawsuit.
For schools that did not prepare in advance, it’s not too late to prevent a dramatic loss of learning time. We don’t need perfect solutions; we need creative, workable ones we can experiment with.
Ally Markovich teaches ninth-grade English at Lighthouse Community High School in East Oakland.
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