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Emily Robinson’s Bangor home had become a classroom for both her and her two children on Friday morning. A special education teacher at Vine Street School in Bangor, Robinson sat at a wooden desk waiting to video-call one of her students while her son and daughter occupied themselves with their own school work.
When the Zoom meeting started, her student’s excited face appeared on screen. He was eager to catch up with her. She asked how he was doing, and he gave her a virtual tour of his LEGO collection.
“I miss seeing you in school,” he said. “I also miss seeing my friends.”
Every morning since Bangor schools shut their doors last month and switched students to remote learning to control the spread of the new coronavirus, Robinson has been checking in daily with every one of her 11 elementary-age students via email. Last week, she started scheduling one-on-one video calls.
It’s part of her effort to stay connected with families of special education students so she can continue tailoring her teaching to each student from afar and provide them with the unique materials they need to follow their individualized education plans.
“This is such uncharted territory. We’re so used to being hands-on with our students, being with them every day, providing them individualized instruction on a daily basis,” she said. “Our concern is, how are parents facing the challenges that they present and how can we help them through that?”
The Bangor School Department has 650 special education students — about 18 percent of the city’s students — each with an Individualized Education Program agreed upon by parents and the school department. Teachers have to present learning material differently for special-education students, because they don’t necessarily learn the way other students learn.
“It’s been really important to stay connected with the families,” Robinson said. “Because of their learning challenges, they typically need more support, and sometimes they don’t have the independent work skills that regular ed students have.”
David Armistead and Susan Bennett-Armistead have two children in Bangor schools with individualized education programs, or IEPs.
“It’s lucky for us that our kids are in special education because for our kids there’s less pressure to get to a certain end point in a curriculum,” said Armistead, the associate head of school at John Bapst Memorial High School. “We know what their goals are, we’ve created a curriculum for them and we’re keeping their learning going at the best pace we can.”
Armistead said he appreciates the effort that both his kids’ teachers have put in to stay in touch.
His son, who attends Bangor High School, and his 7-year-old daughter, one of Robinson’s 11 students at Vine Street, both hear from their special education teachers daily, he said.
Special education teachers across the state that Robinson knows have taken different approaches to staying in touch with parents and students. They use recorded videos, call students to listen to them read out loud and check in with them through email, she said.
“Our goal is to have the children maintain the skills they’ve learned and to enjoy the activities they’ve been receiving,” said Patti Rapaport, Bangor schools’ director of pupil services.
A third-grade special-education student might be asked, for example, to read to their favorite stuffed animal and send teachers a video recording, Rapaport said. For math, an activity might entail flipping two playing cards and choosing the one with the bigger number.
Schools have sent home tablets to help some students communicate. And Bangor’s speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists that work with special education students are also in touch with parents and students to offer their services.
Most services to which special-education students are entitled under federal law are being provided, though not to the extent they would be in a classroom, Rapaport said. For the small number of students who can’t meet their special education goals, their education plans have been tweaked.
“The hardest thing we’re finding is for some families to know how to engage the children so they want to sit in a structured learning environment,” Rapaport said. “Parents aren’t teachers, and kids have different behavior at home than they do at schools.”
Special-education students benefit from routines more than others, Rapaport said.
“I’m sure it’s been more challenging for them without the structure,” she said. “It feels more like summer to them.”
To address parents’ questions, the school department has set up webinars by Andy Kahn, a clinical psychologist from Eastern Maine Counseling and Testing Services.