As the first day of school gets closer, school districts across the state and the country are prepared to encounter challenges the likes of which have never been seen before. It has nothing to do with a lack of preparation, and everything to do the uncertainty that bringing back students, teachers, and staff during a pandemic.
But one group of students, teachers, and staff will face all the same challenges that the rest of their peers will, and then some: Special Education.
“This year is kind of a crazier year anyway, and so we really had to look at our staffing numbers, look at the needs of the students in these specific classrooms, because obviously they’re specially designed for high needs students, and so we’ve really looked at what those needs are and had to respond appropriately,” said Jason Bailey, a Student Services Administrator for Great Falls Public Schools. “A lot of their needs are different than your general education students as far as behavioral regulation or their personal care needs, things like that. Often times we’re working in much closer quarters with students, and so it’s hard for teachers to distance from the students, so we’ve really had to be creative with what kind of supports we need to provide for staff and students to keep everybody safe.”
On top of that, there’s the sense of normalcy that the district strives to provide. Jason explains that their goal is to keep things as normal as possible in a typical school year. They do things like try to include special ed students in general education settings, which helps with social development. There’s also the health challenges. Jason anticipates that masks and face shields will provide a challenge to most students, but especially to those in special ed.
Lisa Von Bergen, another Student Services Administrator for the district says she’s concerned about retention rates and a phenomenon that I previously asked district Superintendent Tom Moore about called “COVID Slide.” In the book Outliers by New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell, he discusses the idea of an achievement gap between students of different socio-economic backgrounds, and how that can be partially attributed to the way that those students spend their summer vacations (i.e. summer camps, enrichment programs, vacations, etc.) Socioeconomic impacts aside, Gladwell published that book in 2008, long before COVID-19 was even a thought. Now, with a five-month gap between now and the last time many students saw their teachers in person and sat down in a classroom, the achievement gap, or the “COVID slide”, could be as drastic as it ever has been. That’s especially significant for special education students.
“We haven’t seen them for six months, so for teachers, they may have lost more skill than they typically would,” Von Bergen said. “They have more medical challenges, as we know for some of our students with mental health needs, there may be additional needs there with students with autism who are used to a specific structure in order to be most successful.”
So, what’s being done to address some of these potential challenges and concerns?
According to Von Bergen, GFPS has ordered more curriculums to give paraeducators more resources to help these students, had more conversations about students needing additional support, entertained the idea of more small groups for students that need it, and even considered more one on one time for students. She says that all of those ideas will be individually implemented through the programs that they have.
Then there’s the health aspect. One on one time might help these students, but how can it be done in a way that protects the health of the teacher and the student? Just another challenge that the district has had to consider within the special ed program.
To top it all off, there’s the issue of staffing.
Last November, I sat down with Dale Lambert, who has since retired as the Student Services Director for Great Falls Public Schools. At the time, the district had just approved a pay raise for paraeducators, hoping that it would alleviate the stream of paraprofessionals leaving the district. He told me then that the district was 17 people short of their ideal number for that position.
Now, nine months later, new Student Services Director Lance Boyd tells me that there are 15 openings that the district is still actively looking to fill. According to Boyd, there are 973 students in special ed programs across the district and 160 special education workers, from paraeducators to nurses to other staff members. That’s about six students to every worker, but hold on. Not all 160 of those are teachers, and while all of them are necessary to help keep the district’s special ed programs running smoothly, they can’t all contribute to giving these students the individual attention that Von Bergen and Bailey hope to provide.
So, while the district has done their due diligence in preparing to face the challenges that come with operating a special education program and catering to these students’ additional needs during a pandemic, it likely won’t be an easy road.
“Shoutout to all of those paraprofessionals out there who really have one of the most difficult jobs out there, supporting our physical needs of students, academics, social, emotional, personal care, in the classroom, individually, small group, large group, general ed, medical monitoring and support,” Von Bergen said. “We really couldn’t do it without them, and how fortunate we are to have them. That in itself should help parents feel better, knowing the quality of staff we have to support their children coming back in.”