Rebecca Bouldin watches proudly as her 5th-grade student, Anastasia Evans, wins their virtual game of Go Fish by securing a final match — soon, an applause sound effect joins in with her own cheering.
“Guess what?” Bouldin asks.
Smiling, Anastasia whispers: “I won!”
Ms. Bouldin, as she’s called in the classroom, is an Exceptional Children Teacher at Virginia Cross Elementary, and the game she played is meant to be a fun way to help students with reading and syllables. With at least six more weeks of remote learning ahead of them, teachers and students in Chatham County Schools EC Department — like Ms. Bouldin and Anastasia — are doing their best to make the time meaningful, even with the obstacles online learning presents.
“The relationships that I have with my families have really helped me in being able to really communicate and connect with them,” Bouldin said. “It’s been a learning curve — I feel like I’ve really been able to learn a lot of new digital tools that allow me to reach my students in ways that I never have before.”
One of those new tools is the district-wide use of the PresenceLearning Platform, an online therapy platform with video meeting capabilities as well as fun therapeutic tools and activities, such as the Go Fish game. Melvin Diggs, CCS’ EC director, said the district’s use of the platform came from parents requesting a more singular location for resources and technology support.
“What we tried to do was bring in enhanced tools to the teachers so that they can apply to their direct instruction,” Diggs said. “We actually are the first in the state to fully implement this for our continuum of services for our EC kids. We will still use our Zoom platform for some types of instruction, but this new platform of PresenceLearning we believe will be a great enhancement and benefit to our students.”
‘Their only respite’
As is the case with many students, internet access can be a challenge for EC students and families. When there is internet, the required parental assistance to navigate the online tools and stay on task can be expounded for students with disabilities. One of the biggest challenges for EC learning under a remote plan is finding ways to follow a student’s IEP, an Individualized Education Program created to understand and provide for the learning needs of an EC student.
Sara Self, an EC program facilitator at CCS, normally visits and evaluates EC teaching in the district, which means joining a lot of Zoom meetings under Plan C. She said she’s seen teachers use some really creative strategies to help mitigate the challenges of remote learning. And, acknowledging the broadband connectivity issues in Chatham, Self said teachers are working to be engaged with students unable to access online materials, even if it means checking in on them and doing an abridged class over the phone.
“I have been happily impressed with the classes I’ve attended,” she said. “It just seems so much more organized and the teachers are prepared. They know what to do. They know where the resources are. And they hit the ground running.”
Heather Johnson, a Chatham resident, said it is really challenging for parents — most of whom are not trained as their child’s EC teacher is — to help with instructional practices to keep their child engaged in learning. Her son, Trevor, is now at Central Carolina Community College, and has aides provided by the state to help him learn.
“For parents of children with special needs who are severely affected, this is often their only respite,” Johnson said of a traditional school day. Without help from their teachers, many EC parents cannot work and help their child learn. “Many parents are already emotionally and physically maxed out.”
After the first week of class at CCS, Johnson said there were “a lot of desperations and unknowns” for parents, particularly related to their IEPs and ability to engage in instruction.
It’s a challenge Diggs and his team was well aware of going into the semester — being able to provide specially designed instruction for all students under a learning plan that is not always naturally conducive to that. Some of the department’s teachers are working to continually update the website’s page on remote learning to assist parents — with videos ranging from effective visual schedules and calming down a student experiencing anxiety.
“We realize that our kids because of the challenges that they have — whether it’s cognitive, physical or whatever — there are extra challenges, but we are trying to meet those challenges as we move forward,” Diggs said of remote learning.
Teachers have realized a huge component of meeting those challenges is creating more communication channels with parents, Virginia Cross Elementary EC Teacher Maddie Allsup said. Those relationships, she said, are crucial in helping students progress in their IEP goals.
“And I think that that’s definitely possible during remote learning,” she said.
‘Keep the focus and grace on them’
Felicia Williams, an engagement specialist with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, understands the challenges of remote learning for EC Families. At Cardinal Innovations — which serves families with diagnoses in intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health or substance abuse disorders — she is hearing from a lot of parents about how hard school under Plan C has been for their families.
As a parent of a child with autism, she also knows firsthand.
“We are in the early stages, so you know, I’m hoping that things will get smoother over time, but for right now, I think the most that I can say my child is getting out of it is just some social interaction with someone else,” Williams said. “As far as getting into those deep academic things, or life skills things, right now it’s just, we’ll have to see.”
Her 12-year-old son attends A.L. Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough. During the day, his desk is set upright in front of hers so that she can hear what’s going on and help him with technology or engaging if needed.
Williams echoed Johnson’s concern for parents struggling to help their children actually sit down to learn.
“At first he was not happy about it — oh, he was just not happy,” she said. “The first few days, I had to really like literally sit with him and engage him, you know, he wanted to lay down, he wanted to turn the camera off, he did not want to engage. The best advice I can give anyone is to just find ways to help yourself to be prepared, so that you’re not fumbling when it’s time to help your child.”
At CCS, Diggs is trying to anticipate these preparation needs through the resources the district provides parents.
“Our viewership of our website is tremendously going up, so parents are looking for those changes,” he said. “And that’s what we want. We want to be engaged with making sure that parents know what to do and how to do it.”
At the end of the day, Diggs said, the district is hoping to work collaboratively to make sure students are moving forward in their IEPs and their learning. He’s been struck by the resiliency of this season — resiliency of students trying to learn, resiliency of teachers trying to teach and the resiliency of parents fighting for their child’s education.
Williams echoed that sentiment, especially acknowledging the challenges students are facing.
“The wonderful thing about the field that I get this time around from families, or at least the families that I’ve been connected with, and the teachers is that it’s a learning curve for us all. So, there’s a lot of grace,” Williams said. “In the midst of all of that, between the parents and the teachers, we can’t forget the kids who are sitting there, waiting to be engaged through all of this — we also find ways to keep the focus and grace on them.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.