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Serving Special Needs Students During COVID-19: A Rural Educator's Story

This story by Corey Mitchell originally appeared in Education Week on June 3, 2020.

When schools in Owsley County, Ky., closed in early March, James Barrett hopped on his bus each morning to deliver meals to hundreds of students.

Then the special education teacher, who is also a bus driver for the rural district, would head home and log in for Zoom meetings with his high school special education students—some of whom have 3rd- and 4th-grade level skills in reading, writing, and math.

Across the country, widespread school closures have upended special education, which is administered through carefully constructed plans called Individualized Education Programs and require extensive services that are not easily transferred to the internet, even for families who have access.

And, while each student in Owsley County has access to high-speed internet, that does not mean they have it at home. In this rural community where the median household income is $15,805, the third lowest in the nation, not everyone can afford the $50 per month fees.

So, two or three days per week, during pit stops on his bus route or after his online teaching shifts ended, Barrett puts on gloves and a protective mask and heads out to homes with paper packets of school work for face-to-face lessons with his students. His wife Jenny Barrett, who runs the youth service center at Owsley County High, often joins him to conduct wellness checks, ensuring students have food and clothing.

One of the students the Barretts still visit frequently is a senior who has been the sole caregiver for her middle school-age brother; their mother has been hospitalized for more than a month with diabetes complications. Since the 4,500-resident county in Eastern Kentucky has only had two confirmed cases of COVID-19, the couple figures the visits are calculated risks worth taking.

“We wear a mask and try to keep our distances, but probably a lot of times, it's borderline,” James Barrett said. “But we just try to do our best versus them not getting what they need.”

Under federal law, roughly 7 million students are eligible for this type of individualized instruction and an array of educational supports and services. Roughly a million of those students live in rural areas and lack of access to the internet is acute in many of these communities, complicating efforts to connect with them during distance learning.

The Center on Rural Innovation, a Vermont-based nonprofit, estimates that 4.6 million students in rural areas nationwide lack access to broadband internet. The actual number could be magnitudes higher because the estimate is based on the availability of broadband—not if families can afford the service.

“So, because you have a cellphone, some people say we’re connected, we’re good to go,” said Allen Pratt, the director of the National Rural Education Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the interests of schools in rural areas. “We all need to be connected, to have the services that all students across America deserve.”

‘Shining Light of Hope’

Nearly every child in Owsley, a one-stoplight county on the edge of coal country, qualifies for free and reduced lunch, a school indicator of child poverty. Fifteen percent of them—about 1 in 7—qualify for special education services.

Despite its challenges, the entire county and adjacent Jackson County are wired completely for broadband thanks to the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative. According to a 2019 report from ProPublica and the Louisville Courier-Journal, the cooperative hired a man and his mule, Old Bub, to help string fiber-optic cable through the mountains of the two counties.

“We have just enough bad things going on for the schools to be kind of a shining light of hope,” said schools Superintendent Timothy Bobrowski, an Owsley County native.

Owsley was also an early adopter of nontraditional instruction days, or NTIs, a provision in Kentucky law that allows students in select districts to continue learning from home when schools are closed because of inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

That means Owsley County had experience with distance learning with all students, including those who receive special education services, well before the threat of coronavirus shut down all schools in the state.

The district is also part of the Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of 114 school systems in 34 states focused on innovation in schools. It may seem like an odd fit for a hard-luck, two-school community, but the district’s resilience and its focus on providing equitable services for special education students help it stand out, said Kimberly Smith, the executive director of the League of Innovative Schools.

“They have been one of the rural districts that has been really thinking about their role as a pillar of their community,” Smith said. “It’s clearly a high-poverty environment but they talk a lot about how they can develop in kids a belief and a hope in opportunities.”

Not all school districts can provide opportunities—and lack of broadband may be holding them back. In neighboring Lee County, Ky., a district which has a similar school enrollment, only about half of students have access to broadband, according to the Center for Rural Innovation.

“We are very blessed” in Owsley, Superintendent Bobrowski said.

Bobrowski, whose son has cerebral palsy, knows the benefits of having broadband firsthand.

With his son’s therapist providing instruction through live video sessions, Bo