Teaching during Covid-19 has been a challenge for educators across the country.

“What is happening in schools since March, and in the world, is horrific,” says Lauren Katzman, executive director of Urban Collaborative, a national network of school districts committed to improving outcomes for students with disabilities. Urban Collaborative joined Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2019. “There are neither models nor long-term strategic plans in place that would have helped to prepare us for these circumstances. Teachers went from almost all in-person teaching to having virtual classrooms up and running in two weeks. The amount of work they did on a good day before the pandemic was amazing, but what they are doing now is just huge,” she says.

While Katzman expects that many students, not only those with disabilities, will most likely experience some regression during the closures, there are some educational silver linings with virtual learning. The pace of having all students access to one-to-one technology was accelerated, many more teachers are able to successfully run a virtual classroom and the collaboration between parents and teachers has never been greater, she says.

In a typical year, the more than 100 school districts that are members of Urban Collaborative would meet biannually to share best practices and present new research. Then came Covid-19. Although it forced the cancelation of an in-person meeting set for last March, members began meeting far more frequently than ever before — gathering virtually twice a month. In November, more than 400 members attended a two-day virtual event, Lessons Learned: Providing an Equitable and Inclusive Education During Unprecedented Times. 

“We heard from members that they really needed to speak to each other,” Katzman says. “They were aware that trying to figure how to solve all these dilemmas on their own was going to be difficult.” 

The virtual meetings were important not only for sharing solutions, says Katzman, but also for members to know that others were struggling just as much under the strain of creating new methods to deliver lessons.

“What they appreciate the most is not only what they are doing but how they are doing,” she says. “There is a lot of collecting of information and sharing.”

In Massachusetts, Springfield Public Schools, a member of Urban Collaborative, has been fully remote for nearly a year. Learning will remain virtual for its 60 schools at least until April, says Special Education Supervisor Jennifer Baribeau. 

One of the first hurdles the district faced, says Baribeau, was achieving one-to-one technology, ensuring that each student with a disability had a laptop or tablet computer. The district paid for internet service for those families who could not afford it. 

Some students have adapted well to virtual learning, while others have struggled, Baribeau says.

“We had some homebound students, who are medically fragile, who before could never engage, and are now able to,” Baribeau says. “They have the opportunity to see their teachers and classmates. But for most of our special needs students this time has been challenging.”

Students who require greater emotional support have had a harder time without the structure found in the classroom, and from the lack of social interaction. “That’s hard to do over the computer,” says Baribeau.

Early on, Springfield discovered that the 30-minutes allotted for lunch wasn’t enough time for those families who had to drive to one of 17 food distribution sites to retrieve a meal, so the district expanded the period to 90-minutes. Teachers use the extra time to brief each other about any issues with students, but also to support one another. The district also provides breakfast and dinner to any student, along with extra meals for weekends.

“Our teachers have done an exceptional job. They have risen to the challenge,” Baribeau says. “They had to learn these tools while teaching along with a lot of additional stress. They miss their students and can’t wait for the time when they get to see them face to face. It’s not an easy task for anybody in education.”

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