Mar 19

Reflections from NOLA Special Educators on COVID Challenges

As the Center’s Local Policy Manager, I lead our portfolio of work in New Orleans, where through the New Orleans Special Education Consortium, we provide in-depth supports to the New Orleans education community aimed at improving access and outcomes for students with disabilities. This winter, we informally surveyed local special educators from New Orleans charter schools to hear their on-the-ground perspectives on meeting the needs of students with disabilities during this extremely challenging COVID year. A total of 28 participants responded to the brief survey.*

We learned that our local special educators in our uniquely decentralized, charter-dominant system are dealing with the same challenges as educators in traditional districts nationwide. 

In line with national trends, New Orleans schools are collectively struggling with chronic absenteeism (the number one concern noted by special educators we surveyed). In the virtual/hybrid instruction world of COVID-19, the success of our students with disabilities depends upon parents and guardians working in lock step with our teachers, deputized to serve the roles of co-teacher, tech support, and attendance officer for their children.

For students with disabilities, nowhere is this tension more readily apparent than in the contrast between our shared desire to return our students who need the most to the classroom and their families’ very real safety considerations about whether it is safe to do so (given a current 6.8% COVID positive rating,  2.6% mortality rating, and over 700 deaths in the last year in Orleans Parish). Of the special educators we surveyed, 26 had prioritized returning their students with significant disabilities for in-person instruction even if the rest of the building was offering virtual instruction. Yet, 9 of the special educators reported that 40-60% of their students with disabilities opted for distance/virtual learning, while an additional 11 reported that 25-40% of their students with disabilities opted for distance/virtual learning. As a point of comparison, citywide data indicates an average of 40% of all students opted into distance learning. While teachers want to prioritize educating students with disabilities in schools, families are disproportionately opting to keep their students home, presumably out of fundamental concerns related to health and safety.

The majority of special educators we surveyed identified student attendance, especially for students who opted for virtual instruction, as the greatest challenge around delivering special education services during COVID-19. Special educators noted a consistent struggle to make virtual schooling feel like “real school,” where students took the responsibility to show up as seriously as they did when it required showing up at the school building. The challenge was particularly acute for high school students: one high school special educator noted their students were “acting as parents for younger siblings while parents are at work.” Another high school special educator noted that chronic absenteeism was “leading to a number of students on track for extended time in high school and at a greater risk for dropout than they already are.”

This local attendance challenge is hardly unique to special education. A recent Lens article reports that citywide, “about 9,000 New Orleans public school students—or about 20 percent …are considered ‘chronically absent’ this school year,” meaning they have missed 10 or more days of school. And, we know this crisis isn’t unique to New Orleans. A recent Bellwether Education Partners study estimated that as many as three million students may not have accessed instruction (virtual or in-person) since March, due to lack of Internet access, housing insecurity, disabilities, and language barriers. 

In addition to student attendance, a majority of special educators reported the following interrelated web of issues as top-level challenges around providing special education during COVID: addressing students’ learning losses; ensuring meaningful benefit from remote/hybrid instruction; and parent involvement during distance learning. Respondents described a feeling of futility around how to realistically make up instructional losses, with one special educator asking, “how will we ever make up all that time?” Special educators also reflected on the challenges with pivoting to a virtual learning environment that successfully replicated the traditional classroom, whether recreating co-teaching models or adapting accommodations in the virtual setting.

Respondents noted that their students’ success in the virtual environment was strongly correlated with the presence of an actively involved parent. Local special educators are acutely aware of the disproportionate burden placed on parents to be co-teachers and to ensure their children’s attendance and engagement, especially for younger students, for whom virtual instruction is especially challenging without an adult to log them on and sit with them. One special educator emphasized their desire for parents to access training and resources.

Our informal survey of local special educators stands as an interesting companion to the Cowen Institute at Tulane University’s recent polling of 1,000 local parents regarding, in part, their perceptions of local schools during the pandemic. Notably, 41% of parents who would have sent their children back for in-person instruction chose not to because they knew someone who had become seriously ill with COVID. It’s a huge local win that more than 90% of parent respondents now have access to the internet and a laptop in their home, up from 65% in 2019, and a testament to our local educators’ hard work that 59% of parents surveyed felt that online learning was better this fall than last spring. Regardless, 70% of parents remained concerned their children were learning less from virtual schooling than in-person instruction. 

Our primary takeaway? This situation is hard. Educators are trying their best, juggling the delivery of multiple learning modalities and pivoting around unexpected building closures, all while acutely aware of their students’ widening instructional losses. Parents are navigating deeply personal concerns about the safety of their children returning to school buildings and profound COVID trauma alongside the awareness that in-person instruction is most effective. Our high schoolers and even middle schoolers are juggling responsibility for their own education with the responsibility to care for younger siblings while parents are working.

So what do we do for the students and teachers NOLA and beyond facing similar challenges? For the remainder of this year, we call on educators and parents to show each other grace and understanding. To acknowledge our shared entitlement to feel safe in our homes and workplaces during an unprecedented pandemic. To communicate our concerns with respect and to understand one another’s burdens—whether it be an educator’s concern that a student isn’t showing up for Zoom class or a parent’s stress at being the co-teacher and a paraprofessional to their child with disabilities. Our principles of equitable schools during COVID-19 provide an evergreen reminder of the values we collectively need to ground ourselves in on our worst days, when we feel the most stressed, whether as educators, parents, or both.

But more importantly, it’s past time to put our collective energy into planning for our new “normal,” when our community has been vaccinated and we can safely return to in-person instruction. We must begin focusing our energy now on long-term recovery planning that prioritizes students’ needs as our North Star for action. Our students’ instructional losses matter not because test scores might fall or hard-fought accountability regimes may need amending again, but because it means our most marginalized students face more staggering inequities than ever before. Our shared, real stress over how we will ever make up all that time means we should reorient our expectations now that we will give students more time to finish their education, and take all necessary policy actions to give students this time. We will accept school-wide remediation interventions as the new normal and demand resources from all levels of government that support these interventions. We will rethink our expectations about the normal school year. We will adopt and implement the research we have at our fingertips about proactively addressing chronic absenteeism and the power of Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports and Universal Design for Learning to reach all students, whether in special education or the general education classroom. We will ensure that our public education budgets are an expression of what we value: ensuring the recovery of our students from this catastrophe.

*Of the 28 respondents, 9 self-identified as CMO-level leadership, which is 26% of the 35 CMOs operating under the jurisdiction of Orleans Parish School Board. Fourteen respondents self-identified as school-site level leadership, which is 17% of the 83 public schools operating under the jurisdiction of Orleans Parish School Board.