Special education navigates the shift to remote learning

Mira Mehta, R3 Editor in Chief, R4 Well Editor

Westfield is in its third week of remote learning, a change which has been difficult for all classes but which poses unique challenges for students with special needs and their teachers. No student has the same experience, and depending on their individual needs, they receive different support and resources within Westfield schools. Some students receive extra support in general education classrooms, some get help in separate classes several times a week and others are in self-contained special education classrooms. 

Many students with special needs also receive resources like speech therapy and occupational therapy at school, for which New Jersey only approved a switch to online services on April 1. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented, but the lack of therapy resources thus far has added to the challenge of teaching special education students without face-to-face contact. Not only has this affected students, it has also put an extra burden on families. 

“By definition, many classroom accommodations are likely not being met… which means that parents need to try to provide additional support,” said one anonymous Wilson Elementary School parent.

WHS Junior Chloe Shanebrook-Wein, whose brother has autism, added, “Both of my parents work and his babysitter is in college, so she can only come at a certain time of the day. He spends a lot of time on his own or with me not really doing anything productive.”

This lack of structure can make it very hard to learn, but some families have had the time and opportunity to adapt to the change. For example, Wilson parent Talia Ausiello said, “I think as far as focus goes, we are in a good routine where we sit down and have, what [my son] calls, ‘school with Mom.’ [He] can focus on his different programs with me for… one to two hours.”

Beyond the format of the school day, the content of the classes has had to change as well.  Teachers, especially teachers for special education classes, have had trouble adapting parts of their curricula to remote learning. Jefferson Elementary School Teacher Trista Pollard said, “I use multi-sensory techniques (hands-on learning) with many of my students. It’s very hard to do that with young students on the computer.”

Ausiello added, “Self-contained special education poses a particular difficulty for teachers, because every child is at a different level of study and… has distinct and individual programs on which they work.”

Transitioning to an effective style of remote learning has taken some time, as the decision to close schools was made very quickly. However, teachers have done their best to adapt. Ausiello said, “Teachers at Wilson, for example, stayed at school until 8 PM of their own volition the last day that school was in session to organize, take home materials and collaborate with each other.”

Teachers have been able to learn and adapt as time has passed. Even though the first two weeks were difficult, Shanebrook-Wein said, “Just today they set up Google Classroom and I think that they are going to start to do more work with [my brother].”

Everybody in the district is trying to do their best with the new style of learning. Although the circumstances have been particularly hard for students with special needs, WHS Special Education Teacher Samuel Haimann said, “I think my kids have handled the first two weeks of remote learning pretty well.”