This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Interviews with these teachers on their experiences teaching in a pandemic were conducted in mid-May, before the death of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest.
Tasaday Messina has one of the hardest jobs for any educator during the pandemic: teaching students with autism.
Messina, a teacher at the Chester Arthur School in South Philadelphia, works with students at the middle school level and has a class of six. Her first major challenge was mastering the technology herself and then teaching her students and their families how to use it.
“In special education, teachers or students are never exposed to Google Classroom,” she said. “The logistics are extremely hard. While we are teaching the students, we are also teaching ourselves.”
For the first two weeks after schools closed on March 13, she worked frantically “by any means possible,” simply to keep in touch. She called, used FaceTime, and made attempts over Google Meet.
It took another two weeks of hard work for her and her students to master Google Classroom. “We got them all in,” she said. “They get on, I am so impressed with my students and myself.”
For most of her Google Classroom sessions, she has had 100% attendance. Her students do two assignments a day, through i-Ready, a research-based curriculum and intervention for reading and math that is approved by the District. “It adjusts to the student’s level,” she explained.
She is accessing other materials provided by the District, some designed for English learners, which she finds is more appropriate for her students than the curriculum targeted to those with autism. “That is way too easy for my students,” she explained. Overall, her students function at a second and third grade level.
During her daily hour-long class, which runs from 1 to 2 p.m., she also sometimes shows videos. A classroom assistant also attends the virtual sessions.
“What is most important is communication,” she said. “We spend a lot of time making connections, talking in complete sentences, taking turns. My students light up during these sessions, they come every day. They want to see their friends. For me, that’s what is most important right now — a time where they can talk to their friends and maintain relationships.”
She adds: “I believe my students are showing up every day to our Google Meets and completing assignments because of the relationships we established between September and March. They trust me and each other, and because of that trust, they are willing to take learning risks.”
Some of her students spend a part of their days in regular classes, which is something they are now missing out. They are not getting their inclusion minutes met, she explains; even though regular education teachers have invited them, for students with autism, it is very hard for them to navigate multiple classes. Speech therapy, for many is part of their Individualized Education Plan, only started in mid-May and has been limited. “I don’t know how the District is going to get around that,” she said.
Students do have the option to attend the “specials” classes — art, music and physical education. But she doesn’t want to make students think that is required.
“I don’t want to overload them,” she said. “We don’t want to go to a level of frustration.”
From the beginning of the shutdown, a focus has been on meeting the needs of special education students, who are entitled under federal law to a “free and appropriate public education.” At first, the District balked at doing any online learning for fear that it could not provide what is legally required to students with disabilities.
But then both federal and state guidance adjusted to a standard of making a “good faith effort” to meet their often complex needs. But that definition is far from precise, and has already inspired one lawsuit filed by a private attorney on behalf of two students in Bucks County.
Messina has attended at least one IEP meeting via Google Meet as well, but a lot of the information she needs documenting student progress was only on paper and left in the school building on March 13, when just a two-week shutdown was anticipated. Come September, she said, she assumes that most students’ IEPs will have to be amended.
At first, Messina wasn’t sure that the District was providing enough help to teachers of special education students. She feels that things have gradually gotten better.
“In the 9th week of teaching and learning, I feel the District is now providing a reasonable amount of resources for special ed, and I feel for the first time they are really trying to support students with disabilities,” she said.
She adds, though, that colleagues who teach younger children with autism tell her they are having a harder time because many don’t know how to type or log in, and their family members might also lack that skill.
Messina rewards her students on Friday with special events: a prom, a beach day, a birthday party. It is all designed to keep them happy and motivated.
“We’re a family in Room 309, we have relationships, and that’s what is most important for them right now.”