With return to virtual learning amid COVID-19, school districts promise improvements for vulnerable kids

In the spring, Jade Hall—a student in the Special Education (SpED) program at Lincoln High School—struggled immensely with online learning. As the fall of her senior year approaches, she hopes for better communication and a stronger support system in this online learning environment.

When she was younger, Hall attended a school for kids who learned differently than others. She has officially been in the SpED program since sixth grade, but distance learning has presented her with challenges.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Sixth grader Zeno Alexander sits with his classmates typing on laptops from a portable computer lab in 2013. As students across Oregon will start the 2020-21 school year remotely, many worry about a deeper divide for students with special needs.

Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott"[The most difficult part of online learning was] communicating with my teachers about what my needs were, along with making sure that all of my accommodations were met," Hall said.

Although many plans for the 2020-21 school year are still up in the air, major school districts have developed plans for students in both the general education pool and the SpED program.

Considerable developments began on July 28, when Gov. Kate Brown announced that most K-12 students would not re-enter classrooms until Oregon sees a statewide positive coronavirus testing rate at or below five percent for three consecutive weeks. After Brown's statement, many major school districts, including Portland, Beaverton, Salem-Keizer and Tigard-Tualatin, announced that their students would be learning from home until at least November.

While distance learning presents issues for many programs run throughout schools in the district, SpED programs are especially vulnerable.

In order to be eligible for the SpED program, a student must have a disability that impacts their educational experience. They must need something different than what general education provides. Every student in the SpED program has a unique, Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is written to fit their specific needs.

In the spring, the U.S. Department of Education set a maximum number of instructional minutes that teachers were required to work within. This meant that the maximum amount of screen time, or teacher-time, was limited for students, presenting difficulties for the SpED program which banks on face-to-face learning to ensure students with disabilities get the proper help they need from teachers and to have any questions answered.

That will change come fall, when instructional minutes will be the same as a normal class in the physical school building, meaning students will have more time with their teachers to get help. And, according to the U.S. Department of Education, at a minimum, half of students' instructional time should be teacher-facilitated. This shift in operation should allow students in the SpED program to get more attention and more time with their teachers than they were able to in the spring.

During the school year, Hall was part of a study skills class at Lincoln, where she was able to work on unfinished homework, receive help on certain assignments and take tests for various classes in a quieter, calmer environment. Because Lincoln is in the Portland Public Schools (PPS) district, all students are aware that the school year will begin online. But because Hall won't physically be in the classroom, she's concerned that she will be unable to utilize class time and remain focused.

"I'm really worried about being productive and being able to stay on top of my work," Hall said. "It was super helpful having a teacher there that was able to help me with all of my assignments along with being able to keep me on track."

This fall, PPS will be providing the majority of special education programming in a synchronous, or face-to-face learning via a virtual platform, model at a scheduled time with students interacting with teachers and paraeducators, according to Mary Mertz, senior director of special education for PPS. Additional learning activities will be provided in an asynchronous, or flexible across time, model. Speech language pathologists will continue to provide teletherapy as they did in the spring.

Compared to instruction in the spring, Mertz believes the most significant difference is that there will be a set daily schedule, daily contact with SpED staff, a greater library of resources, lesson plans and printed material, greater technology training for students and families and greater family engagement outreach.

"We had very few companion printed materials to support the online experience, but have now developed materials to go with most online lessons," Mertz said.

Hall argues that, although this plan sounds adequate, she would like to see more in-person communication. She also hopes teachers will actually follow through with their instructions.

"In the past, teachers at Lincoln have been very reluctant to follow through with previously set plans, especially when it comes to accommodations to the SpED program," Hall said. "I also would like to have one-on-one, in-person meeting times with your personal study skills teacher at least once every two weeks where you could really discuss your assignments and be able to get that hands-on help that a lot of students who are a part of this program need."

PPS is not the only district that has revised plans for the SpED program.

Kelly Raf, administrator for special education for the Beaverton School District, has said that plans for students in the SpED program will differ depending on students' IEPs, but that they are currently unable to finalize plans because the district is still negotiating with the Beaverton School District's teachers union on what their working conditions will look like in the fall.

In the spring, the district's students received their services through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. That included meetings via different online platforms as well as work being pushed out to students through platforms like Seesaw and Canvas, platforms in which students can submit assignments, participate in discussions and complete work given by teachers.

Beaverton's plans for the fall include a higher level of contact with specialist providers through a mostly synchronous manner, Raf said.

By working with administration, staff, parents and students, Raf said the Beaverton School District is doing what it can to try and find ways to help students be more engaged.

"We know that online learning can be really hard, especially for students with disabilities, so we're trying to figure out how we can make sure that students are engaged in this comprehensive distance format," Raf said. PHOTO COURTESY OF SALEM-KEIZER SCHOOL DISTRICT - Graduates pose for photos with a school administrator during the Salem-Keizer School District's 2020 Community Transition Program commencement ceremony. This year, as distance learning kicks off again, schools are trying to better accommodate students with special needs and disabilities."We want to be able to see our students and utilize what we know about them, which is a lot harder to do online. It's hard when we don't have them in our buildings like we're used to."

Salem-Keizer School District's plans for the fall are similar to Beaverton's. Students will continue to get their services that are in their IEPs, and administration will meet with families to figure out if there are revisions that need to be made or things that need to be added or changed to these IEPs given the change in educational settings, said Melissa Glover, director of student services for the Salem-Keizer School District.

To create this plan, the Salem-Keizer School District talked with parents, teachers, other district staff and students to hear how distance learning went in the spring and what the district needs to do to be better in the fall, Glover said.

"The easiest way to describe the spring is that it was an emergency operation, with very little time to plan, and with our teachers really just working as quickly as they could to provide services in a digital way without the most intense training and support," Glover said. "This time around, we've had time to prepare. We have a couple of extra weeks at the beginning of the year to work with our SpED teachers around tools and resources that are available to them through technology that maybe they didn't know about in the spring so that we can really have everything at our fingertips to give kids what they need, when they need it."

The Tigard-Tualatin School District (TTSD) is following a similar model to Beaverton and Salem-Keizer school districts. Because each student is different, they will each be receiving services that correlate to their IEPs.

"What we [did] as we [thought] about this new school year, was think about the environment and what is required of students to learn in this new environment, and then adapted our services accordingly," said Carol Kinch, director of student services for the TTSD.

The TTSD also has a few teams of teachers that are taking the curriculum used in the SpED program and adapting it for an online environment. One important difference is that more of the services will be synchronous, so a SpED teacher will be online facilitating work being sent out instead of relying on students to do the work themselves.

For students who have more impactful conditions, like autism or an intellectual disability, and are working on life skills and functional academic skills, the district is putting together home toolkits, which will include a white board and markers, visual schedules and reinforcement systems, visual routines for daily living skills (i.e., hygiene routines) and vocational routines in the home (folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, etc.), that will be delivered to families to use with their children, as teachers facilitate the online part of the learning.

"We always collaborate with parents, but our collaboration is even more important right now," Kinch said. "One hundred percent online for some of our students who are more impacted by their disability is really difficult. To not be able to provide something that works for them, it's really hard. All we can do is put a team together and work with their family and keep trying."

Cate Bikales, an incoming junior at Lincoln High School, is one of two summer interns working for Amplify, a Metro-supported project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms.

Amplifying voices

This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports two summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at

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