Local teachers adjust to distance learning in midst of COVID-19 pandemic

Distance learning presents unique challenges for special education delivery but one local teacher shows why teachers are united and not divided in trying times.

Posted: Apr 11, 2020 5:35 PM
Updated: Apr 15, 2020 5:39 PM

(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) – Teachers across Missouri are adjusting to helping parents and students learn at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Distance learning presents unique challenges for special education delivery but one local teacher shows why teachers are united and not divided in trying times.

Rhonda West, who teaches special education at Truman Middle School, said it’s been a rocky transition from the classroom to home school for teachers, parents, and students.

“Some of my students don’t have the know-how or find it challenging to maneuver the internet and so I don’t have as many students attending,” West said.

Teachers throughout the state have worked to accommodate parents that, possibly for the first time, now have to add “educator” to their daily routines as Missouri schools cease in-person instruction during the global COVID-19 pandemic for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

“It’s been challenging,” West said. “Definitely challenging. You know, we just miss seeing the kids.”

The decision to keep schools closed was made by Gov. Mike Parson and the department head of elementary and secondary education during a press briefing on April 9.

“We know remote teaching and learning looks different in every district across our state – so we are simply asking our school leaders to continue to be creative, innovative and persistent in their pursuit to reach students with some kind of academic opportunity,” DESE Commissioner, Margie Vandeven said.

That means teachers prepare double the lessons, one for parents and another for students. For example, West has had to help parents learn video applications like Zoom and how to access assignments on Google Classroom.

“Some of my students don’t even have access to the internet so we have to provide physical packets too,” West said.

But it’s been a uniquely challenging job for special education teachers. There are more than 119,000 Missouri students with identified disabilities, including 1,400 in the St. Joseph School District, according to the most recent state data.

Schools now have to find ways for all of those students — each with a particular set of disabilities and needs — to learn at home. Those needs run the gamut, from speech therapy, physical accommodations, behavioral management, social and basic life skills.

During a typical school day, West teaches a study skills class, a life skills class and accompanies students who need modifications to class.

For example in a traditional math class, West serves as co-teacher tailoring the typical lesson plan at the moment with the math teacher. That kind of tailored, quick troubleshooting is not possible in the home setting.

“When we are in the classroom and need to make an adjustment we can do it right there if we need to,” West said. “Now we don’t have that connection so it’s lots of text messaging, emails, and phone calls to meet the needs of those other kids.”

West has also had to reinvent her lesson plan for her life skills class. A class that involves hands-on learning, one-on-one attention, and individualized goals.

“My life skills class is for students to learn how to do things that many of us take for granted,” West said. “What we do in the classroom, they can’t do on the computer so for example, I asked one parent to cook a meal but let the student read the recipe.”

Additionally, several special education services extend beyond academics and help students achieve social and behavioral goals.

At school, there’s a group of teachers and staff certified and trained to provide the scope of services needed for special education instruction. At home, parents have to somehow do it all.

“A lot of it is just listening to them express their concerns and frustrations,” West said.

West said she’s spoken to other district teachers and fellow members of the St. Joseph Chapter of the National Education Association, about how they are helping overwhelmed parents and students.

She said teachers are responding by establishing a 24-hour line of communication with parents so they can call, text or email concerns.

West said that while there are unique challenges facing special education, there are more struggles teachers, parents and students have in common.

“If I had to get a message out to the community, I would want them to know that teachers are there. We are still working even though we are not seen,” West said.

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