Virtual learning keeps students with special needs engaged

Posted at 1:07 PM, Jul 14, 2020

BROADVIEW, Ill. – As the debate continues over whether it will be safe to return to school in the fall, some students are trying to stay engaged during the summer. For students with special needs, it can be especially challenging. Learning new life skills is about overcoming those challenges.

From inside her home, special education teacher Rebecca Josefek begins her classes with meditation each morning.

“We try to find one that would energize us and get us started for the day. But it's important for them to center to focus,” said Josefek.

For the last six summers, the special education teacher at Proviso East High School has worked on an extended year program for high school students with special needs.

“We prepare these kids for a productive life after high school,” said Josefek.

Normally, the summer class is hands on, focused on life-skill building like cooking and gardening.

Josefek says in-person instruction is critical to these students' development.

But this year, like so many things, it’s almost completely online. For the nearly 7 million students with special needs, it can be especially harrowing.

“It's scary and it's hard with the kids, because we've lost some kids, like they don't want to be on or they're on and they just don't want to be present, like they're just in the background,” said Josefek.

Kamron Bell, a 15-year-old sophomore at Proviso West High School, has Down syndrome. Though this year the summer program has required adjustment, he’s taken the virtual learning in stride.

“I like it,” he said with a smile.

For Kamron’s mother, Alison Bell, not having the in-person instruction means she has to take on a more active role.

“Kam had an aide who had a one-on-one aid when he was in school, so I took the place of the aid. I think it just kind of sitting next to him and making sure that he stayed on task and that they could understand him,” said the mother.

No one knows what the long-term impact of distance learning will be on these students. Josefek says it’s been a tough journey already.

“It's a challenge and I think they're missing a lot. So, they like their social interaction with each other and with us as teachers,” she said.

Educators say there will likely be significant regression – a phenomenon known as the “summer slide.” And the longer students are away from traditional classrooms – the more pronounced that regression could become.

It’s one reason Josefek hopes remote learning will be long gone by next summer.

“I hope but we will continue this summer program whether we're online or we are in person because it's definitely a needed program for these students.”