Chatham’s EC students, teachers tackle barriers in COVID-19-affected season

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/1/20

Morgan Brewer called the days living in a COVID-19 pandemic a “strange” time. But even though she’s separated from her students, this Exceptional Children’s teacher is finding the …

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Chatham’s EC students, teachers tackle barriers in COVID-19-affected season

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Morgan Brewer called the days living in a COVID-19 pandemic a “strange” time. But even though she’s separated from her students, this Exceptional Children’s teacher is finding the positives.

“I am sad that I have not had the same communication with my students and parents as I have when school is typically in session,” said Brewer, who teaches at Chatham Central High School, “but I have learned a great deal more about some of my students because I am taking more time to check in on them emotionally.”

While all of North Carolina public school teachers work from home due to state executive order, educators working with students with disabilities face barriers like any others while adjusting to remote learning, but EC students face added obstacles, requiring extra work.

“What this season requires us to do is to double-down on our commitment to see us educating our students any way we can,” said Melvin Diggs, Chatham County Schools’ executive director of Exceptional Children and AIG. “When things get a little tough, we have to get tough. We’re going to do the best we can with what we know and what we have.”

Chatham County Schools had 1,197 EC students last December, according to a report from the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction, making up 13.3 percent of the district’s student population. Additionally, Chatham Charter School in Siler City had 47, 8.3 percent of its population, and Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill had 73 EC students, making up 14.2 percent of its student population.

A report titled “Supporting Individuals with Autism Through Uncertain Times” from the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute Autism Team released as the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic said children and young adults with autism — a common disability among EC students — “may need additional support to process the news and adapt to the many changes.”

“This population may face additional challenges related to comprehension, communication, difficulty understanding abstract language, an insistence on sameness, and a greater likelihood of anxiety and depression,” the report stated, “all of which may be exacerbated during this stressful period.”

One way Chatham County Schools’ EC teachers are working with their students during this time is helping them work through how they’re feeling, utilizing what Diggs calls “social stories.” These images and other media are designed to help students learn about routines and adjust.

“Many times our students with intellectual disabilities and autism lack the communication skills to say, ‘Oh, I’m not feeling well today,’ or ‘I’m excited about this new thing coming today,’” Diggs said. “So social stories, social-emotional skills and supports are necessary to provide that way of communicating and teaching them to communicate the best way we can.”

Brewer said she’s been preaching two messages to her students: she’s there for them for anything, and she wants them to keep learning.

“We talk more about what is going on in general and they (those that have decided to) have been telling me more about their families and their home lives,” she said. “It also makes me smile to ‘see’ into their worlds through the video-conference and they love to ask questions about what they ‘see’ in my house. I am seeing and learning more about my students as a whole not just as the student who needs help with math or reading or emotional control.”

Overall, schools are trying to tailor their education to each EC student while trying to provide the same level of service to all. School district teachers hold weekly conferences for their students and provide daily lessons through online platforms, Diggs said.

Chatham Central administrator Beth McCullough said her school’s teachers are offering a daily meeting for middle and high school students.

“They know it’s a set meeting every day,” she said. “They get on and they do exactly what they would be doing in class together.”

Despite the challenges of both an EC student’s individual learning obstacles and remote learning enforced by COVID-19, McCullough, Diggs and Brewer each say there have been positives out of the situation.

“They have risen to the occasion,” McCullough said. “We’ve been very proud of them. A lot of the times this is where you see how the training of students comes out where you have to be more independent.”

Diggs added, “At the end of the day right now, this is a situation where I am so pleased and so honored to be a part of Chatham County Schools in just trying to do what’s best for students and their families and trying to provide good faith efforts in any way that we can.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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