Learning online presents particular challenges for students with special needs

Strawberry Mansion High School teacher Jaimason Miller works remotely.
Strawberry Mansion High School teacher Jaimason Miller works remotely. Photo credit Courtesy of Jaimason Miller
By KYW Newsradio 1060

Part 9 of a new series: 'Live and Learn: Education in a COVID-19 World'

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) -- Jaimason Miller's students at Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School are on the autism spectrum. Teaching through a Chromebook, he says, has disrupted the structure his students require.

“I know how difficult it has been for me to have this change in routine, and you hit the nail on the head with how difficult it is for children with autism to have any kind of shift in routine, and this is as big as it gets,” he told KYW Newsradio.

Miller said parents accompanying students at their computers is essential.

"I've actually been very, very blessed here with some amazing parents who are sitting there with their child all day on our meets and Zoom calls," Miller said. "I can give direction to the parents about how to kind of work through this problem or work through this task with their child."

He says he's very lucky to have someone able to give students some kind of physical guidance.

"Special education is a very large umbrella, and a lot of my students in particular require a lot of physical guidance when learning,” Miller said. “My students are juniors, seniors, people who are about to graduate and go into the working world, and a lot of what we do is we help them physically. You know: learning to hold, like, a mop or broom and teaching them job skills. So as far as that goes the learning has absolutely been affected."

In person, he would teach his students physical skills. But online, Miller has been concentrating on subjects like math and reading.

"We have to kind of step back and say, 'We can’t run this in the digital setting,'" he said. "I can’t help your student or your child with their bathroom etiquette -- you know, his cleanliness -- through the computer."

Miller talks with his students about what it will be like when they return to school, to reinforce the notion that the disruption is temporary.

Overbrook Educational Center teacher Ernie Tyler
Overbrook Educational Center teacher Ernie Tyler with a student Photo credit Courtesy of Ernie Tyler

Virtual instruction also presents a hurdle for students at the Overbrook Educational Center, where about a third of the students are blind or visually impaired.

Ernie Tyler teaches life skills there. He’s had to adapt his work because his students can’t navigate a computer on their own.

"A student with visual impairment writing something on the paper and then holding it up to the camera perfectly so that the teacher can read it is, as you could guess, very stressful and straining. So we eliminate that," Tyler said.

"Right now, we have to just adapt and say: All right, here's some things we wanted to work on at this part of the year. We’ll just change it around, and we’ll work on the things that we can effectively do. Social skills is one of the biggest things that I can work on while we're on a computer," he said. "If one of your classmates is answering a question, you should be listening to them, not talking over them. Building conversation skills -- we can do all those things very effectively through a computer."

At school, Tyler’s students run a store out of his classroom, selling pop tarts and drinks.  Without an in-person experience, he pivots to asking his students online about the interpersonal skills they would learn about dealing with customers.

"Do you want to be kind to them? Or if you say something mean to them, do you think they're going to come back again?" Tyler said. "So we still can have those social skills lessons around. It's just a little harder to imagine when you're not doing it in real life."

Miller says students’ individualized education plans, or IEPs, have become digital education plans because of the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has altered life in many ways for most of us, including the way students are learning. Over the next few weeks, KYW Newsradio is taking a look at the impact of COVID-19 on education with "Live and Learn: Education in a COVID-19 World."