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Video conferences are a key element of supporting students with disabilities during virtual school.

COURTESY PHOTO - Estacada Middle School student Lucas Clark uses a laptop to complete an assignment during the district's virtual school program.

During a recent video conference, two of Debbie Tubbergen's students prepared for a spelling test with a game of Pictionary.

"We would shout out the word and spell it," said Tubbergen, a paraeducator who works with students with disabilities at Estacada Middle School.

When the Estacada School District transitioned to a virtual learning program in March to facilitate social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and paraeducators who work with students with disabilities analyzed needs on a case-by-case basis to ensure everyone received the appropriate support during this time of using programs like Google Classrooms and Zoom.

Jason Hobson, director of student services in the Estacada School District, noted that some students his team works with are more involved with their general education courses and work with a learning specialist on a weekly basis, and others receive the majority of their instruction from a learning specialist.

Several years ago, the Estacada School District switched to an inclusive practices model, through which special-education students and those with behavioral concerns spend more time in general education classrooms rather than self-contained classes or outside placements. Hobson cited this as creating a valuable foundation for the virtual school program.

"(Inclusive practices) involves deep collaboration between classroom teachers and learning specialists. The collaborative piece we were working on before helped strengthen our collaboration in this setting," he said.

Establishing a routine

Twice a day, Tubbergen has video conferences with the two students she works with.

"We try to keep them engaged. We want to keep a regular schedule because we know how uncertain these times are," she said.

The virtual meetings are popular with eighth grader Lucas Clark, one of Tubbergen's students.

"I like talking about my stuff," he said, noting that he enjoys discussing films like "Bee Movie" and "Finding Dory."

Prior to meeting with students, Tubbergen visits the Google Classrooms pages for each of their courses and determines which assignments they'll focus on and which ones might require modifications.

Academics aren't the only focus of the meetings. Tubbergen will touch base with both students to ensure that they're doing well, and they also participate in fun events together. Each week they take a virtual field trip to a zoo. On Friday afternoons they often embark on Disney's virtual rides.

Tubbergen also invites other Estacada Middle School staff members to join their meetings, asking the students who they'd like to see on a particular day.

"We try to keep them connected and encouraged. … It's really fun when we invite other staff members," she said.

COURTESY PHOTO - Estacada Middle School student Lucas Clark says he's doing well during the virtual learning program but misses seeing friends at school each day.

Technical support

Technology is being used in several ways to support the specific needs of individual students during this time.

Tubbergen uses Zoom's screen-sharing feature to take her students to the Google Classrooms for each of their courses and walk them through the assignments they'll be working on.

Estacada Middle School teacher Ashley Allen noted that one common accommodation for students is having a scribe, which has translated well to an online platform.

"(The students) can talk through their thought process, and the (paraeducator) can open a document for the student online and type," she said, also noting that recording video of articles being read aloud for students also has been helpful.

Along with using technology, some paraeducators have been creating packages of worksheets for students to be delivered via bus through the Estacada School District's daily meal delivery program.

Family members and guardians also play a role in the virtual school program.

"The support has been really good. If I have any questions, all I have to to do is ask," said Lucas Clark's mom, Semira Clark. "I'm really happy that there's an email each day talking about his progress. I like that they continue to reach out and touch base."

Students with disabilities are participating in virtual school at rates between 80% and 95% each day, but school leaders acknowledge that this isn't always an easy situation.

"We're thinking of the students who are struggling and planning a robust compensatory education plan to support those students," Hobson said.

Though they're able to keep in touch through technology, both students and teachers miss having in-person interactions.

Clark said he's "doing pretty well in virtual school" but misses the social element of seeing people every day.

"I like jibber jabbering about stuff (with friends)," he added.

Allen agreed that the biggest difference is not seeing students in person.

"(In brick and mortar) we had human-to-human contact, and I miss that. I miss joking with my students. They bring you joy," Allen said.

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