Anne Boucher read an illustrated children’s book about an ant to two of her students at Brewer Community School on Friday morning. The students sat across from her, separated from their teacher by plexiglass. All three wore masks, and Boucher also wore a plastic face shield.
As she read the book, Boucher held it up behind the plexiglass so the students could describe the images, and she asked them how they felt about what they were hearing. One student alternately fidgeted with a small, black-and-white cow and large, squishy T-Rex.
“This one is just to get them talking about things that they are working on,” Boucher said of the exercise.
As a radically different school year gets underway, requirements that teachers keep their distance from students, and that students keep their distance from each other, can pose a challenge with special education, which often requires teachers and students to be in closer contact with each other so students can get the individual attention they need.
So far this school year, however, teachers in Brewer and Bangor — where about a fifth of students require special education services — have been pleasantly surprised at how their students, who have a range of needs that make it difficult to learn in a traditional classroom, have adapted to wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
“I cannot believe how well children with disabilities have adapted to this new behavior that is required of us in a pandemic between the social distancing, keeping our space, and being able to wear a mask and to receive other people socially who are wearing a mask,” said Angela Moore, the Brewer School Department’s special education director. “I was very worried about many of our students with disabilities being able to wear a mask and keep it on. But it’s almost as if suddenly they’ve identified that everybody else is doing it and so they must have to do it.”
Teachers said they’ve found other ways to form the close relationships they need to with students with disabilities, in the absence of being able to hug or sit on the floor next to them.
“We’ve had to change that a little bit because of the social distancing rules,” said Allyson Baynard, who teaches students social skills at Brewer Community School.
Baynard now wears a clear plastic mask so students can see as much of her face as possible. She also uses gloves in case students need to be in close physical contact with her.
Remote learning is still happening for some special education students.
Emily Robinson, a special education teacher at Vine Street School in Bangor, has 11 students, all but one of whom have returned to in-person school five days a week.
Robinson, who found success checking in with her students on video calls during the remote learning period last semester, has continued that practice for her one student who is learning from home this semester. Every morning while her in-person students start school by having breakfast in the classroom, she meets with the remote student virtually.
Juggling the two different forms of teaching simultaneously while meeting the needs of all students is her biggest challenge this semester, she said.
In Brewer, students have returned to school in person just two days a week. But Boucher said her students soon will start attending in person four days a week. It will help them to have less time learning in a format with which they struggled during the spring after the pandemic forced schools to close their doors, she said.
In the meantime, on remote days Boucher just assigns students educational activities that allow them to practice what they learned in school.
“We want to make sure they didn’t lose anything and we want to give them that extra reinforcement of their academic skills,” Boucher said.