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Virtual learning a mixed bag for special education students, teachers

The COVID-19 era has restructured education for everyone, especially students with disabilities. The lack of peer interaction has negatively impacted some students with disabilities, while allowing others to thrive in the digital classroom, according to parents and educators.

Capital News Service

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By Hunter Britt and India Jones

Sebastian and Gabriel Saxon wake up at the same time every day and log into online classes. Sebastian has Cerebral palsy and is diagnosed with autism. Gabriel has hearing loss and wears hearing aids.

The twins’ mother, Judi Saxon, said that Google Meet, the platform used to conduct online classes, has worked well for her sons, who are freshmen in high school this year.

“They’re both rule followers,” Saxon said. “They like a routine.”

Saxon said she is involved in her sons’ education and the special needs community. Her husband, Michael Saxon, sits on the Board of Directors of Special Olympics Virginia. She said that switching to all virtual learning was an adjustment, but it had a positive effect on her teenage sons.

“Our family is pretty low key, and our boys are not super sports fans, and they don’t have a lot of extra curricular activities,” she said. “So they weren’t really missing out on that. And they are homebodies, so they really enjoyed it.”

The COVID-19 era has restructured education for everyone, especially students with disabilities. The lack of peer interaction has negatively impacted some students with disabilities, while allowing others to thrive in the digital classroom, according to parents and educators.

The Virginia Department of Education reported a decrease in fall term enrollment for all students, including students with disabilities. Enrollment for students without and with disabilities declined by 3% and 4% respectively from the 2019 to 2020 academic years, according to VDOE.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced guidelines in June for phased reopening of pre-K through 12th grade schools for the 2020-2021 academic year. The announcement prioritised special education students to return to in-person education before other groups.

But many school districts, including Richmond, opted to remain remote since the beginning of the school year. Some districts are allowing only students with disabilities to return to in-person learning. VDOE Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Samantha Hollins said that for students with disabilities, the virtual learning environment may be more of a challenge.

State and public agencies are required to provide early intervention, special education and related services nationally to more than 6.5 million people with disabilities, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The VDOE oversees special education for children and youth with disabilities between ages 3 to 21.

“It has become more challenging of course, but the students’ rights remain,” said VDOE spokesman Charles B. Pyle. “The services that are required to be provided to those students do not go on holiday because of the pandemic.”

Local school divisions offer special programs and resources for students with disabilities, but remote education may be inaccessible during the pandemic for such students who rely on hands-on education, according to Hollins. There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities in Virginia public schools, according to VDOE’s latest enrollment numbers. Disabilities range from intellectual and emotional to hearing and visual impairments, including the deaf and blind, Hollins said.

“Certain populations of students are more at-risk and not able to access virtual learning or remote education as easily as other students, for example, students with disabilities,” Hollins said. “When you talk about students with disabilities, there is a pretty wide group of those students.”

Students are often required to attend multiple courses per day via Zoom or Google Meet, including out-of-class assignments. Hollins said her department has provided a lot of information on assistive technology. For example, virtual education may be accessible to a hearing impaired student with screen reader software.

“Students who have a visual disability, or blind, or a hearing impairment, or deaf, will require special tools to be loaded onto their Chromebook,” Hollins said.

The VDOE sponsors training and technical assistance centers across the state to provide support to teachers test-driving new technology, Hollins said. Public and private special education schools have a collaborative approach to improve educational services for students during COVID-19. According to VDOE, technology provided to public schools is accessible to private educational facilities.

“We’ve had countless meetings with public schools during these difficult times,” said Sarah Ulmer, principal of Grafton School in Midlothian.

Grafton Integrated Health Network is a nonprofit with group homes and schools serving students with autism, intellectual disabilities and mental health challenges, according to its website. Seventy-four students are enrolled on the Midlothian campus, Ulmer said. During the COVID-19 mandated closure, students with disabilities received in-person instruction from their residential group homes, while teachers provided virtual instruction to students who do not live on-campus.

Although Grafton School reopened its community day school to in-person instruction five days a week, many parents have not sent their children to school, Ulmer said.

“Our students benefit from learning with hands-on activities,” Ulmer said. “The teachers and clinicians have worked hard to create work activities that are sent home to our students to complete with their families.”

Distance learning plans at the school include individualized sessions throughout the week with the student’s teacher and assigned therapists.

Many educators as well as parents have differing views on online platforms being used for virtual education. Some also question how effective online education is as a whole and said it is a struggle for teachers and students.

Donna Marshall, a special education teacher at Lakeside Elementary in Henrico County, said that both she and many of her students have had issues with the online format.

“It was very difficult for them at first,” Marshall said. “This is such a change for them. Many of them need different things like the sensory breaks, and it’s really hard for them to just sit in front of a computer.”

The primary platform Marshall and her students use is Microsoft Teams. She said that while it works well in business settings, she believes that it is less effective in a classroom setting due to audio issues.

Marshall said that some of her students have done well with virtual education, but the format has had a negative impact on other students.

“I have seen several kids majorly regress because they don’t have the in-person connection,” she said.

Marjorie Loya, a Special Olympics coach and a retired special education teacher from Chesterfield County who is now a substitute teacher, said the biggest concern she has for the children learning virtually is the lack of interaction with peers.

“They just don’t see the other kids, which is the shame,” she said. “That’s the big piece that I see that they’re missing. They’re interacting with adults, but they’re not interacting with their peers.”

Loya said she believes that online education in the special needs community is ineffective, especially in the long run.

“I don’t think it’s very good at all, because there’s so many things, so many aspects that you can’t deliver services for,” she said. “Virtually, you just can’t do it. One of the biggest issues that people with autism have is interacting with other people, and now we’re taking almost all of that away and putting a computer between them.”

Anteal Gargiulo, a special education teacher at Goochland High School in Goochland, said that while some students she teaches have adapted well, others are struggling with the lack of structure and in-person interaction.

“My autistic kids that I thought were going to have the biggest issues actually have been more outgoing and verbal because they are on the computer, by themselves, and in their own space,” she said. “For other kids, the lack of structure has really thrown them.”

As a whole, virtual learning “has not been the best thing” for the special needs community because many students are used to teachers being physically present to help them, Gargiulo said.

“On a case-by-case basis, it’s been good for a couple of our autistic kids. As far as the rest of the kids, it has been a struggle because they don’t have the teachers right there with them.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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University of Richmond begins spring semester with students back on campus, health and safety policies in place

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students.

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The University of Richmond has resumed in-person instruction and the residential educational experience for the spring 2021 semester as of yesterday, Tuesday, January 19th, 2021.

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students. Specific plans for the spring semester include:

“The University continues to monitor very closely pandemic developments, and we are prepared to modify our approach to instruction if conditions warrant,” said Jeff Legro, executive vice president and provost. “At this time, we believe we can safely and responsibly continue with our plans for an in-person spring semester, and our community is committed to adhering to our guidelines to make that possible.”

Testing and Screening Protocols

All students were tested for COVID-19 on campus prior to move-in or taking in-person classes. Students were asked to self-quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to campus by staying at home to the fullest extent possible and following additional health and safety protocols. All members of the University community must monitor their health daily. Faculty and staff are also being provided options for COVID-19 testing. UR will also continue COVID-19 prevalence testing, which involves testing a randomly selected group of asymptomatic people to assess the incidence of COVID-19 on campus. 

Move-In

In order to promote physical distancing and ensure adherence to health and safety protocols, student move-in is being phased over a period of 17 days and is expected to conclude Sunday, Jan. 24. Students moving in during this final week are starting their classes remotely and will begin in-person classes following their arrival to campus.

Red Stage Opening and Enhanced Rules

As in the fall, the University of Richmond will open in the Red Stage of its Physical Distancing Framework. During the move-in period, additional enhanced Red Stage rules were implemented to promote a successful and safe start to the semester. These policies provide guidance for students awaiting COVID-19 test results, limit visitors in student residences, and require residential students to remain on campus.  

Calendar and Class Information

The first day of classes is Jan. 19, and classes will conclude April 23. Finals will take place April 28 through May 6. There will be no spring break; however, UR has added two mid-week break days in Feburary and April. As was the case this fall, many courses will be offered in-person while some will be offered fully online or use a combination of approaches. In-person classes will continue to be offered in classrooms modified to support active learning while adhering to physical distancing and related safety protocols. Students could also choose to complete the semester fully online.

Dashboard Data

The University of Richmond COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at least weekly, remains a source of information to provide updates on COVID-19 data specifically related to the campus community.

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U of R announces socially distant service opportunities and virtual events in honor of MLK Day

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

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The University of Richmond has announced it will be closed Monday, January 18th to allow the campus community to engage in physically-distanced service activities celebrating MLK Day.

Historically, UR celebrates the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through a day filled with service opportunities completed alongside the greater Richmond community. Due to COVID-19, this year’s MLK Day events will foster opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to volunteer virtually by working on project kits developed by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The kits entail projects such as transcribing documents from the Library of Virginia; creating birthday cards for Celebrate! RVA; making toys for the ASPCA; writing letters to elected officials; and more.

The community will also have the opportunity to use the Book Arts Studio’s printing press on MLK Day, to create book art and journals that align with this year’s theme, “The Revolution Then And Now: A Time of Healing.”

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

“In the wake of two pandemics — COVID-19 and social injustice — we’re encouraging our community to reflect on what it will mean to heal as we look to the future and explore the ways that we can better impact the lives of those in our community and beyond who experience social injustices and are fighting their own individual revolution,” said Morgan Russell, associate director of multicultural affairs and event organizer.

Full details about UR’s MLK Day celebration are available at richmond.edu/mlk.

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RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras Statement on Trump Riot in DC

“Yesterday’s events were horrific. But rather than run from them, let’s confront them and the uncomfortable truths about race that they laid bare.”

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The Superintendent of Richmond schools, Jason Kamras, issued a strong statement yesterday in the aftermath of Wednesday’s attack at the nation’s Capitol.

Dear #RPSStrong Family,

As many others have noted over the past 24 hours, one of the most striking aspects of yesterday’s events was how law enforcement responded to the overwhelmingly white insurrectionists, as compared to how they responded to BLM protestors of color in Lafayette Park in DC this past summer.

Yesterday, mostly white men seized and vandalized the United States Capitol – and were then allowed to simply walk away.
Last summer, peaceful, mostly Black protestors, who had gathered a block away from the White House to make their voices heard, were gassed and forcibly removed with military tactics, including the use of a US Army helicopter. I shudder at the thought of what would have transpired if the individuals who attacked the United States Congress were Black.

As educators and parents, we need to talk about this with our children. And those of us who are white have a special responsibility to do so. For our national “reckoning” on race to yield tangible results, we must actively and repeatedly call out inequity, educate our children about it, and teach them to uproot it.

Yesterday’s events were horrific. But rather than run from them, let’s confront them and the uncomfortable truths about race that they laid bare. In doing so, perhaps we can take one more step towards fulfilling the ideals symbolized by the United States Capitol.

With great appreciation,
Jason

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