Parents, teachers adapt to online learning for special needs students

16-year-old Christopher Yancy of River Ridge High School in Woodstock participates in a video chat. Christopher's curriculum includes life skills such as cooking, doing laundry and writing a resume. Contributed by Brenda Page

Brenda Page said she was thankful in mid-March when she learned Cherokee County Schools would shift from classrooms to online instruction. Her 16-year-old son, Christopher Yancy, has a heart murmur, making him more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“I was very, very grateful to them, and then I started thinking, ‘Oh God, now I have to do it, I have to teach him,’” she said. “But he has a wonderful teacher, and he’s given us work, and Christopher is actually pretty excited about doing the work.”

Christopher’s work looks a little different from most Georgia students’ assignments because he has Down syndrome. 

Christopher is in the special education program at River Ridge High School in Woodstock. His homework includes life skills, tasks like folding laundry, writing a resume and following a recipe.

“That’s really more important,” Page said. “I mean, yeah, you would like for your kid to be able to spell at age 16, but that’s not a realistic goal for me. So I want him to be able to do the laundry. His dad and I are old. We’re not spring chickens, so he’s going to have to survive on his own, and whether he can count or not may not be as important as whether or not he can do the laundry and cook.”

Children with special needs often learn important lessons about socializing in school – how to make friends and get along with new people, said Sarah Hansen, a Georgia State University assistant professor who trains new special education teachers. Those are things you can’t learn from mom and dad, she said.

“Parents, and even, to some extent, siblings, because of the environment, are predictable. Adults are likely to do the same thing in the same order every day. Peers are unpredictable, and also modeling the socially valid way to do anything. Only a peer is going to be able to tell you how to ask somebody to play and have it work out.”

Page said Christopher is doing great with his homework. She’s especially proud of his culinary skills – he makes a mean French toast – and he’s even landed a job. One of his assignments was to fill out a resume and apply for work. Once the pandemic lifts, he will be a barista at Rise Coffee and Tea in Roswell.

Page also said her son’s special education teacher, Derek Woodburn, has made studying from home easier with plenty of fun assignments and words of encouragement.

Other Georgia parents said their kids are not getting that kind of support.

Peyton Sowers is a happy, fun-loving kindergartner at North Columbus Elementary. She loves coloring, painting and building obstacle courses for her mom, University of West Georgia assistant professor Kelly Williams.

Peyton was diagnosed with severe ADHD last summer. Until a few weeks ago, she stayed in the regular education classroom for most of the day, but worked with a special education teacher in a small group for language arts and math.

Then came the coronavirus and the school shutdowns.

“I try to homeschool her and teach my three college courses,” Williams said. “But we take a lot of breaks. Mostly because I know kids need breaks, also she specifically needs breaks because she doesn’t really sit still.”

Williams said Peyton’s regular education teacher is sending frequent messages, and they’re working hard to complete all the assignments.

“I haven’t heard much from her special education teacher,” she said. “I am not sure what to do to bridge that (Individual Education Program) gap. So, I’m teaching her the regular stuff, but obviously in a very much one-on-one setting.”

In Fayette County, special education teacher Victoria Saxon works with elementary school students with learning disabilities. She teaches alongside regular education teachers and also takes kids in smaller groups who need extra help.

She said the school closures have been a learning experience for teachers as well as students.

“I’ll be honest, I panicked at first because so much of my job is relationship building,” she said. “It’s that constant face-to-face every day, the check-ins with the students and all that.”

Over the last few weeks, Saxon learned to take her job online. She’s also learned what doesn’t work in an online classroom. 

One thing that doesn’t work for her is trying to teach a traditional class over a video conferencing program like Zoom, because there are simply too many distractions.

“What I’m setting up in the future is doing more one-on-one sessions with my students, because if I do more of a large group with Zoom, it’s very difficult to keep their attention,” she said.

But Saxon said the big virtual gatherings still play a helpful role: simply allowing the kids to see and interact with their friends during a scary time.

Saxon said during times like these, teachers have to be concerned with more than just grades.

“I’m more concerned about their social, emotional, mental health right now, because this is something that is unprecedented, what’s happened, and I’m more concerned about my children knowing that it’s going to be okay, and that I’m still here for them, I’m still reaching out to them. That’s my priority for my students. We’re still here. We’re still going to take care of you.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.