The COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools, but it hasn’t stopped learning. But education means something different for every student.
Heather Berlin and her son Carter live in Rapid City, where Carter is a fourth-grade student at South Canyon Elementary School.
“Carter has a neurological condition that causes difficulty with all of the nerves in his body, so some of his biggest challenges are just the writing aspect of school and the long days,” Heather Berlin said.
She says the stoppage of in-person school has been hard for her and her son.
“I think the greatest impact to him is just not having the same schedule and not having the structure that he’s always had in the past when it comes to school, so that’s been some of our big challenges, as well as the supports,” Berlin said. “So when he’s at home, I’m, I have to be there to help support him through all of his education, and to try to help him with all of his homework assignments.”
Becca Frahm is a special education teacher at JFK Elementary in Sioux Falls.
“For my students who are more significantly impacted and have those significant disabilities, a lot of the time the parents are the ones working one on one with their child doing the things that I’ve assigned, but they’re really the ones that are really providing those interventions, through my specialized instruction that I’m providing them and the tools that I’m giving them,” Frahm said.
The distance learning she provides is specific to the family.
“It’s all individualized based on what the family needs, for what is working for their family and where families are at,” Frahm said. “So if families are feeling overwhelmed, and they’re focusing on the mental and physical health of their family, then that’s what I’m stressing, first and foremost, before anything academic.”
“I think that especially as you get to more significantly-impacted people with disabilities, it’s just a challenge to deliver that kind of individualized instruction in a remote manner,” said Deb Muilenburg-Wilson, senior director of special services for the Sioux Falls School District.
Muilenburg-Wilson says the distance learning platform has limits.
“I think our teachers are doing a great job of giving this their best run, but I think there are some students who need a higher level of structure and whose disability might interfere with their social skills that this model can’t deliver on,” Muilenburg-Wilson said.
Muilenburg-Wilson says that what happened during remote learning will be evaluated.
“Our commitment is to do what’s right for their child with a disability,” Muilenburg-Wilson said.
Julie Murphy is a special education teacher at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls. Technology has helped her interact with students.
“I do a lot of Zoom meetings, FaceTiming students, we use Google Voice to call them, so as much interaction as we possibly can, and that amount of interaction really depends on the student,” Murphy said. “Some of them, I have a couple students that I meet up with or Zoom with multiple times a day.”
But that’s not the case with every student.
“Then there are some that it’s maybe once or twice a week I check in with them, make sure they’re doing okay, make sure they’re getting their assignments done, so it really depends on the student,” Murphy said.
Greg Gaden is director of special services for Rapid City Area Schools. He, too, brings up the role that a parent might have to play.
“When you have younger children and children have more significant disabilities, it’s almost like you have to have a parent as a teacher with those children,” Gaden said.
School work continues to be offered, even during a pandemic.
“I quickly sent out a guidance to all of our parents that our teachers would begin to set up Zoom learning times with their children, that is a requirement,” Gaden said. “Our staff is very aware that they are to continue to implement the IEP goals that are in the student’s IEP.”
IEP is an acronym for “individual education program.” Tim Neyhart, executive director of the non-profit Disability Rights South Dakota, says that since the suspension of in-person schooling, he has heard of instances of school districts overlooking special education in South Dakota.
“We’ve represented a couple families who have had issues with schools not providing services, not providing the related services like speech and physical therapy and occupational therapy, and so we have worked with the parent and the school to create a dialogue and to support the parent, so that the school understood their responsibilities to provide services,” Neyhart said.
Citing privacy, Neyhart declines to say where this happened. As everyone adjusts to life that has been dramatically impacted in many ways by COVID-19, there is a strong desire to go back to what we knew. It’s the same story with education. Carter Berlin, his mother explains, likes school.
“He enjoys going to school,” Berlin said. “He misses the social aspects of school, he also misses his teachers. It’s been difficult because we don’t have all the supports that we’ve, he would have in the school system, and it’s been hard to get those supports translated over to at-home type services.”
“I just think that it’s important that we continue to stress just how much teachers really do miss their kids, and we all can’t wait to get back into buildings again and be with them and be able to see that learning in person,” Frahm said.