Updated: May 19, 2020
AUSTIN, Texas — It took some adjusting, but parent Maggie Suter said her family has gotten the hang of virtual learning. Suter has four sons, two of whom are in special education classes in the Eanes Independent School District, all learning from their Westlake home.
The school district implemented a remote learning program in March after schools shuttered to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Every student is now logging into the web-conferencing app Zoom and using Google Classroom as well as other educational applications and systems to connect with teachers and classmates.
But for Suter’s sons William and Travis, learning remotely looks a little different than it does for their brothers. William, who attends Westridge Middle School, and Travis, a Westlake High freshman, are both special education students.
All learning and programs have moved to the online environment including core, Spanish immersion and special education classes and services. Molly May, executive director of Special Education and 504 Services, said that includes occupational, physical and speech therapy as well as counseling services.
She said that could mean students logging into Zoom to meet with therapists or watching pre-recorded videos that give step-by-step instruction. Students are also meeting with their teachers and classmates and completing assignments virtually.
“We have a population of students that this is not the best way for them to be learning, and we know it can be a challenge for students with significant cognitive disabilities,” May said. “We are working with parents to develop schedules for kids and to the best of our ability trying to help families build predictability because kids thrive on routine.”
West Ridge special education teacher Nicki Sablatura Smith said she’s tried to do just that — establish a routine and make it as simple as possible for students and parents.
“My classes are different because the need level is different,” Sablatura Smith said. “My students have trouble just logging into Zoom. Once they are in Zoom I try to make it to where parents don’t have to assist them. They all have working parents and they are not all able to sit with them and assist them for the entire day.”
From figuring out how to use Zoom to keeping track of homework assignment deadlines and meetings with teachers, Suter said she’s wearing multiple hats in her home these days functioning as a mother, teacher and case manager, while also working her full-time job.
And the daily needs of each son are different, she said.
Two of her sons — a second grader and a seventh grader — have managed to find a routine for the school day that works for them and need little help from her.
But for William, Suter said she takes her laptop into his room to make sure he stays on task.
“He gets tired of sitting,” she said. “So he gets up and walks around and he sometimes wants to have a dance party with Alexa. Normally, he would have someone on staff to help get him back on task.”
For her other son Travis, she said her role is making sure he turns in his assignments.
“He’s a kid that tends to fly under the radar because he doesn’t get in trouble and is very quiet, so he sits and listens to lectures but never turns in the work,” she said. “And he says no one is asking him for it.”
She said normally a case manager would be there to follow through with him and make sure he’s turning in his work. But now that he’s on Zoom, there are barriers, so he’s not getting the support he’s used to.
That is where Sablatura Smith said her role as a special education teacher has evolved. She has shifted from focusing on just the student to now focusing on the entire family.
“Working with parents has become a whole other added aspect of my job,” she said. “Being a special educator, you already collaborate with parents, but my role has evolved to helping parents teach their children. I’ve had to shift my thinking from focusing on students to now being the support for the entire family. It’s changed but that has been a nice thing.”
She said this shift in the paradigm has deepened her relationship with families and students.
They’ve all gotten a look into each other’s home life as students show off their bedrooms and family pets that are now visible through Zoom meet-ups. Sablatura Smith said she’s met all the family pets and other family members, and her students have now met her dog and new husband. The personal connections, she said, keep everyone positive and patient.
The last few weeks have been a learning experience for everyone, but she hopes to have given students and their families a sense of normalcy and positivity. And that sentiment is mutual.
“You don’t really think about those things, but to them they are used to seeing you everyday. And something as small as seeing each other on Zoom is helping with normalcy,” Sablatura Smith said. “I know they do that for me as well. Seeing them helps me stay positive and makes me feel like I am still fulfilling my role in all this.”
The district announced recently that schools would be closed for the remainder of the year and that online learning would continue through May 28. That means another month of students learning from home using their school assigned iPads to complete assignments and connecting with teachers and classmates via Zoom.
Suter said she’s prepared to do this, crediting the patience of her company and teachers like Sablatura Smith, who have taken the time to get creative with student learning and have been patient with families as they navigate this new environment at home.
“I tell my parents that all I ask for is grace and I will give them the same thing and we will figure this out together,” Sablatura Smith said. “And I think we are figuring it out.”
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