Jessica Sierra and her family. Sierra’s oldest son has autism and has benefited from virtual learning. Courtesy of Jessica Sierra.

Special education relationships have been implicated by COVID-19

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“It takes a village to educate a child.” 

This famous quote, uttered by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1996, is often cited by teachers, administrators and parents as a way of discussing the importance of the entire community investing in and advocating for a child’s education.

This concept perhaps rings even truer for children with special needs.

“As classroom teachers, it’s really important to be open to parents and to really facilitate that connection and communication, frequent connection between both parents and teachers,” said Kristi Morin, assistant professor of special education at Lehigh University.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees that any child in the United States with a special need can receive a free and appropriate public education and that they will be provided with all the necessary services to accomplish that goal. The law helps ensure strong relationships between special education children, parents and teachers.

However, the switch to virtual learning has presented relationship challenges to students, parents and teachers. Many students have been fully remote since March. COVID-19 has made it harder for students to maintain strong mental health, and they need extra support from their parents and teachers to complete assignments.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act determines how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 7.5 million children and infants with special needs.

To comply with the act, school districts have to implement what is called an Independent Education Plan, or an IEP, which is a written document that helps guarantee proper instruction and services for a child with special needs.

Brenda Solitario, a special education coordinator for the Bethlehem Area School District, said relationships have improved since virtual learning began in March. Before COVID-19, the district only had weekly or monthly communication with parents, but now has daily and weekly talks with them, she said.

“Everyone is coming together and working together to support the students because when children are home, whether parents are there or not, they have to check in with the teachers and make sure that their child is succeeding and doing the work that they need to do,” said Kristin Amato, a district-wide educational support teacher at the Bethlehem Area School District.

However, the school communicating and listening to families of special education children is essential, but in reality doesn’t always happen, said Angela Murphy, a special education lawyer in Pennsylvania.

“Under the law, (the relationship) is supposed to be a partnership,” Murphy said. “The parents and the child are supposed to be the most critical people in the team. That doesn’t often happen.”

Communicating with families is essential right now, and people have been accessible, said Brian Siket, executive director of special education for the Allentown School District.

He said communication has grown during COVID-19 because many families have questions, and the district is getting constant feedback from parents.

“Everybody has really been on board,” said Kristine Horn, the special education facilitator at William Allen High School. “I would say there’s more open communication and team member involvement in those communications.”

Jessica Sierra said her oldest son with autism needed one-on-one support and wasn’t getting that from Schnecksville Elementary School in the Parkland School District.

She said the relationships between her son and teachers have been positive since he moved to the Commonwealth Charter Academy, a statewide charter school.

“What ended up changing was the mentality about my son physically,” Sierra said. “Who he is didn’t impede my son’s charter school from doing the things that needed to be done so he could be successful. Whereas his old previous school wasn’t willing to support him.”

Megan Stocker, a seventh grade learning support teacher at East Hill Middle School in Bethlehem, said the transition to virtual and hybrid learning has made it harder for her to connect with students who rely on special education.

“I think the challenge was it took a little bit longer to build that relationship, that trust that they would typically have in me because of the time I’m able to spend with them in school,” Stocker said.

Murphy said meetings aren’t as productive as they typically are because they are now done virtually, and there is a lack of personal connections between teachers with parents and students. Students haven’t been getting consistent interactions with their peers, a critical part of learning socialization skills.

Murphy said the lack of services available pre-pandemic in the Lehigh Valley has only been exacerbated since the onset of COVID-19, with counseling being more group-based than individualized. 

A parent of a son attending one of the Bethlehem Area School District schools said there’s a lack of transparency and communication about special education from the school district.  

This parent asked to be anonymous because she is worried about the repercussions of her comments in her children’s education and relationships with teachers and administrators. 

However, the son’s teachers had gone above and beyond during the pandemic and met with him over the summer before he started working with them, they said.

“They (the teachers) did a Zoom call with him to kind of introduce themselves to him, meet him and start creating that bond,” the parent said.

Solitario said everyone has been doing their part to maintain strong relationships during the pandemic.

“With the training the staff has, with being trauma-informed, (it) really does help to connect the right students to the support that they need,” she said. 

Lehigh Valley community partners, such as Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s, have been providing mostly virtual services to the Bethlehem Area School District schools, Amato said. 

Siket said psychologists had held numerous virtual meetings with students, and a social-emotional learning curriculum was launched for the whole district, not just the special education department.

“There are guidance counselors within the group,” he said. “Recently, a parent died, and we’ve held virtual sessions with students to work through grief, many things along those lines.”

Stocker said she had offered her students to join Zoom sessions for academic help and an opportunity to see how they are feeling.

It has been a team effort during COVID-19, she said.

“That team approach with parents, regular ed. teachers, students, special ed. teachers is probably the most important piece, that everybody is on the same page and providing all they can for each child,” Stocker said.

Brown and White reporters Olivia Celiberti and Sydney Staples contributed to this story

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