The creation of a virtual classroom for special education students, as a result of physical school closures due to the COVID-19 virus, offered many challenges including the need to create temporary educational plans and to learn the mechanics of online service delivery. Unexpected and positive outcomes of the virtual classroom included improved therapist and teacher collaboration, enhanced student behavior and better educational staff time management. In the virtual classroom, therapists and teachers needed to adaptation and simplify materials and methods. Most students who attended the virtual classroom appeared excited to see each other. The behavior and performance of some students remained the same in the virtual classroom while those of others were altered. The COVID-19 virus affected all aspects of our world including education. Virtual education has impacted not only how we learn but how we perceive and communicate with each other.
CHALLENGES, LEARNING AND SHIFTING IMAGINATION
In mid-March of this year, 2020, after lunch and recess the children were dismissed and we left our classrooms taking whatever we deemed important. I took my professional license off of the wall thinking that returning to the classroom this year was unlikely. The governor had declared all schools in the state closed in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus that was spreading through the U.S. Then, a few weeks later we received an urgent e-mail informing us that classes would soon resume on an online basis and to wait for instructions.
The challenges of creating a virtual classroom for special education students were many and included the creation of temporary educational plans and learning the mechanics of service delivery through the computer, by email or by phone. The new experiences taught me and my colleagues the need for adaptation, similarities and differences between virtual and in-contact teaching and learning, and how the forced change shifted my perception and imagination.
Creating Temporary Plans for individual students
Our first challenge as staff members in the special education department was to create Individualized Temporary Education Plans (ITLPs) that temporarily replaced the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place for each child that we served. The ITLPs were online documents that were shared and added to by each team member. Each child’s educational plan was adapted to a shorter time frame in terms of hours per week. In addition, educational goals were generally simplified.
The next challenge was to actually deliver services. Therapists, as related service personnel, were advised by the district to deliver services in conjunction with teachers, staff and parents. No individual sessions were to be held online per district protocol. The reason for this was not explained but all districts for which I had worked recommended that related service personnel work within the sight of other adults during the school-year as a precaution against possible lawsuits that might be brought by parents. I suspect the reasoning was similar for the virtual classroom. We were in uncharted territory and could be subjected to legal challenges.
As therapists and teachers (occupational, physical, adapted physical education) we were provided guidance as to how we might integrate our services into the virtual learning environment by the therapy supervisor through written examples. Suggestions included: joining a pre-K or kindergarten classroom and engaging students in a brief motor activity during circle time, providing activities to specific students in conjunction with the Google classroom lesson and weekly emails or phone calls to parents for home movement breaks, leisure activities or support and guidance on home equipment or positioning. In addition, therapists shared web sites and written information regarding fine motor, gross motor, sensory motor, visual motor and visual perceptual activities electronically with each other and this helped to get the process started.
Ultimately, I delivered services according to the ITLP and based upon my student’s needs at this time. I regularly joined the classes of my students with marked cognitive and physical deficits and additionally provided therapy suggestions to staff and parents. Students who were a part of the general education curriculum but who needed support for math and reading were provided with optional therapy suggestions via Google classroom. These students appeared to be struggling with completing general education assignments for various reasons and I did not wish to create or to add to the stress on them or their families by supplying additional required assignments.
Creating and Using a Virtual Classroom
The mechanics of creating a virtual classroom were, initially, the most daunting task and it seemed to be the source of the most anxiety for teachers and staff. Challenges ranged from staff delivering Chromebooks to families without computers to teachers and support staff learning how to use Google classroom. While numerous Chromebooks were distributed to students, I understood that the need outstripped the resources. My own frustrations included discovering that my computer was outdated and unable to supply the necessary video and audio links needed for the virtual classroom. I resorted to using my personal Chromebook but I also needed to “powerwash” or erase and restore all data on it because it malfunctioned during the virtual classroom period.
The transition to virtual learning within my district, while challenging, was not unfamiliar. The district had Chromebooks available for students in grades three and up for use during the regular school year, and most general education teachers and students at these grade levels used or were familiar with Google Classroom. Special education teachers had not had to create a Google classroom in the past, to my knowledge, but quickly accomplished this task as the teachers were generally young and experienced and comfortable with technology.
The district technology department, in an attempt to support staff unfamiliar with Google classroom, created an online game-based learning program. It befuddled me, but fortunately Google has a great deal of online support for its product and I learned through tutorials how to post to a Google Classroom and how to make slides and video. Within a short time, the ease with which I was able to use technology for learning opportunities increased markedly. I saw the same growth in confidence in other staff members.
How the virtual classroom worked. As a related service provider, I followed the lead of the teacher. Within special education in my district, each teacher created a Google classroom. I requested permission to join classrooms that served my students and could then link to virtual sessions or contribute to weekly activity sessions. Each week, I typically joined my classes that were small and generally self-contained during the regular school year. We met on Google hangouts during the morning meeting time. I also joined some individualized sessions with each child and the educational staff and parent. All sessions were recorded and filed. Typically group sessions lasted 30 minutes and were attended by 3-10 children. In addition to attending virtual sessions, I contributed by sharing fine motor, visual motor, visual perceptual and sensory motor activities with teachers, students and parents either by e-mail, shared documents or by posting Google activities in each teacher’s Google classroom.
Positive experiences. There were a few advantages that the virtual classroom provided. Whether they were novelty effects could not be observed at this time. The three positive experiences included: (a) time management; (b) behavioral management; and (c) collaboration.
(a) Time management
The virtual classroom experience led to better time management. Meetings for IEPs and for educational planning were held on Google hangouts. Student evaluations that required direct contact through standardized and non-standardized testing did not take place. Sidebar conversation was generally averted, and IEP meetings that typically lasted two hours were finished in thirty minutes to one hour. In addition, the negative influence of office politics that existed in the physical building seemed to have ceased in the virtual environment.
(b) Behavioral management
Providing positive behavioral supports and outlining expected behaviors continued in the online learning environment. Expected behaviors were delivered in a verbal or verbal and visual format and typically included requesting permission to leave the online learning environment and talking one at a time. Students had the option to press the “mute” button on Google classroom themselves or the teacher could override and “mute” students who talked out of turn. This option worked serendipitously and exceptionally well for a student who disturbed others by talking excessively in the physical classroom. He eventually chose to “mute” himself while he continued to talk during the lesson in the virtual classroom and therefore disturbed no one.
Social etiquette and learning how to interact appropriately during online learning were new for everyone. Pressing the “mute” button during staff meetings and during online classroom sessions was expected and became more automatic because it reduced auditory static. The written chat bar on the side of the screen, viewed by all team members, was effective for student and parent feedback during the classroom session without verbal interruption. One teacher’s aide used it most effectively to provide individual students with positive feedback while I held a sensory motor exercise session.
Collaboration has always been a key word in school-based occupational therapy. Much of the time, during my twenty year career as an occupational therapist, collaboration between myself and teachers and parents felt elusive. Each school-year I vowed to communicate what I knew about therapeutic methods that might help each individual child to parents and teachers only to find my time largely taken up by lengthy meetings and tight schedules that emphasized potentially Medicaid billable group or individual therapy sessions. While direct therapy sessions are important, as is monetary compensation for the district, collaboration always seemed to take a back seat.
With the arrival of the virtual classroom, collaboration became easier. As a therapist, I had access to all of the weekly learning plans for each of my special education teachers and as a result was better able to integrate my services into the classroom. Additionally, I was invited to attend classroom planning meetings that I had not been invited to in the past. This helped me, again, to collaborate with my teachers to a greater degree than previously. Finally, teachers sought my support, especially at the beginning of the virtual classroom inception. They looked for my expertise for fine motor, visual motor and sensory motor ideas and activities that would support the educational process of their students.
Occupational Therapy: From Hands-on to Virtual Services
Occupational therapy is a “hands-on” profession. We model skills and guide the process through visual, verbal and physical cues with students. The virtual delivery of therapy services forced me to think and work in new ways. Suddenly, in the virtual classroom, there is no opportunity to use touch or physical cues.
Instead of the “hands-on” approach with students, I communicated to parents through video and written instruction via Google classroom. For example, I made and posted a video illustrating the use of finger feeding with food such as Cheerios and raisins in order to develop pincer grasp and the fine motor skill called “translation.” In another instance, I created a step-by-step written parent guide to making a peanut butter sandwich with emphasis on turning the jar lid in order to develop the fine motor skill called “complex rotation” in addition to placing the index finger on top of the knife in order to develop the “skill” side of the hand. Both of these skills contribute to being able to perform functional home and classroom tasks such as dress oneself, trace, print, color and cut paper. In subsequent weeks, I watched as one of my students made toast at home as a part of a virtual group cooking project. To my surprise and delight, she held her index finger on top of the knife while spreading butter without cues.
LEARNING FROM NEW EXPERIENCES
In the virtual classroom, therapists and teachers needed to adapt and simplify materials and methods. While some students were unwilling or unable to attend virtual sessions, most appeared excited to see each other. The behavior and performance of some students remained the same in the virtual classroom while that of others was altered, and my perception of both students and staff was altered.
Need for adaptation
“Simpler is better” and “adapt as needed” were concepts that teachers and I needed to consider in terms of delivering online services. We could not expect that each household had the materials required for an online activity. Some materials might need to be substituted for others. For example, during an activity to improve pincer grasp using eye droppers with colored dye and coffee filters, a family might substitute tooth picks, washable markers and toilet paper.
Unable or unwilling students
Some students were unwilling or unable to participate in virtual learning. One student with autism refused to log onto the computer in order to participate in group and individual learning activities; so instead, the teacher e-mailed a weekly list of abbreviated activities that parent and student could engage in. I supplemented by sharing appropriate visual motor online links with the teacher to suggest to the parent. Most students embraced the opportunity. One student was unable to attend online learning because the parents were health care professionals and had quarantined their children with a non-English speaking family who had no computer access.
Happy to see you all
For the most part, however, student participation was greater than I expected in terms of numbers and cooperation. I saw the delight in the faces of my students as they viewed and talked with each other on the computer. They appeared happy to see each other after the break of several weeks at home. One of my teachers expressed that suddenly, instead of walking into the classroom and ignoring each other, her students readily greeted and interacted with each other online.
How forced change altered my perception
Changing the format from a physical classroom to a two dimensional online environment altered my perception of students and staff. As a therapist, I was more in tune to the facial expressions of students and staff and not as distracted by the multisensory nature of the physical school environment that is typically filled by movement and sound. For example, I clearly saw the apparent fatigue on the face of the technical support person who was coordinating computer distribution and programs at our school. The frustration of a teacher who felt that he was not heard during a meeting was clearly evident. Finally, the anxiety of a physical education teacher was vividly seen during a staff meeting as she asked questions and struggled to understand how she might provide a virtual P.E. lesson
Virtual learning: What remained the same
Through virtual learning, I saw that the challenges that students faced in the classroom remained the same at home. The student who had vision and attention deficits in the classroom had the same issues at home when there was excessive sound and movement. The student who refused parent help at home and who was impulsive and unable to follow multi-step tasks without support sought to escape the required activity at home in a socially acceptable manner by cleaning the table or requesting to leave the session to use the bathroom. A teacher’s aide at my school giggled when she recounted a parent apologizing for her child’s online behavior because the aide was accustomed to this same behavior at school.
Virtual learning: What changed
In contrast, the behavior of some students and their ability to attend to task improved in the virtual classroom. For instance, one of my students who had attention deficits cursed, threw items and typically refused to cooperate in sensory motor activities with me during the regular school-year. In the virtual classroom, he performed the same activities with minimal verbal cues from the teacher and he thanked me at the end of the session. Improvement in cooperation and behavior improved not only for this student but for fellow peers who also had attention deficits. According to their teacher, the short lesson format of the virtual classroom met their attention and learning needs and therefore reduced behavioral outbursts. Additionally, as a therapist, I could see that these students now were not challenged by being required to change their physical environments multiple times during the day and by the noise and activity of those environments.
Throughout the virtual classroom experience I felt uncertainty, anxiety and doubt and I was not alone. One of the teachers expressed that she did not feel that she was fully able to meet her children’s needs in the virtual classroom and she longed to return to the physical classroom. Nonetheless, in subsequent weeks, she appeared excited to share online resources with me that she had discovered and planned to use in the future. Another teacher appeared highly stressed during a group virtual morning classroom activity. By late afternoon, she forwarded an e-mail from a parent of one of our students in which the parent commended the teacher and the staff highly. The teacher prefaced the e-mail by saying that she cried when she read it.
The COVID-19 virus challenged my colleagues and me to think in new ways and to learn new skills in order to continue delivering educational services. As an occupational therapist, it increased my opportunities to collaborate with teachers and to communicate with parents. Online learning with short modules of instruction appeared to benefit students with ADHD the most. Despite the challenges of service delivery and the uncertainty that educational staff voiced concerning the process, parent appreciation and student participation was higher than I expected.
The COVID-19 virus affected all aspects of our world including education. Virtual education has impacted not only how we learn but how we perceive and communicate with each other. I anticipate that the changes that have occurred in education will continue to evolve and that education will never look like it has in the past.
To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Dobransky, D. (2020). COVID-19: An Experience by a School Staff Coping with the Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/covid-19-an-experience-by-a-school-staff-coping-with-the-crisis/