Distance learning is a two-way street. Conducting classes outside of the classroom takes effort from both the teacher and the students.

In Alexandria Public Schools, teachers say they’ve seen their students put forth a great deal of energy in the last two months while they continue schooling virtually. And special education classes are no exception.

On March 15, Gov. Tim Walz ordered a schooling shutdown outside the classroom, and it was up to each district to come up with a plan for how to carry out the school year. The spread of the COVID-19 virus challenged Alexandria schools with a new form of education called distance learning (See April 10, and April 15, issues of the Echo Press for the first two parts of the distance learning series.)

For some teachers, a hands-on teaching style is optional. For special education instructors, it's nearly mandatory. While virtual classes can limit the teacher-student interaction, educators are making the best of a bad situation.

“There were definitely some challenges at first with learning the new technology," Lincoln Elementary special education teacher Alexis Wagner said. "For our students, we want to make sure we are meeting each kid's needs and getting them the support and services they require. Obviously, that works in a classroom, but then we had to figure out how to do that for them at home."

Sticking to the plan

Each student is on an individualized education plan. Each student gets a personal plan with goals set at the beginning of the school year. Despite not being in the classroom, students are still working on reaching their goals virtually.

"There might have been a social skills goal that was revamped, but for the most part, they've stayed the same," said Alexandria Area High school special education teacher Amber Bartlett. "Goals for reading, writing, math and executive function goals have stayed in place."

Each special education teacher is required to conduct face-to-face video chats. Through nearly two months of distance learning, the response from the students and their families has been positive.

"The parents and families of the students I teach have been very supportive of what we are doing," Bartlet said. "They've been responsive to anything that I've asked or needed. I know it's hard for parents, and it's hard for everybody. But they've been very supportive, and that's been so big for us."

Both Bartlett and Wagner use Google Meet for their video chats with students. Even with social limitations, they are finding ways to be creative.

"I get to see my students most of them every day or every other day," Wagner said. "It's fun to see their faces and connect with them. I do small groups with two to five students so they get to see some of their friends and interact. That's where we also give some of our direct instruction. We also send videos for projects and assignments for them. Between that and the live video, it's given us a chance to connect."

With distance learning, there's always going to be some hiccups. Alexandria Public Schools are doing the best they can to make this transition as smooth as possible.

"There are some families that are hard to connect with," director of student support services Michelle Bethke-Kaliher said. "Those are families that are probably hard to connect with during the school year too. We have had very positive feedback from families. Teachers have that normal stress of learning a new format or sometimes the connection isn’t as bright. I think we have benefited in Minnesota with the government's time they gave us to prepare and plan."

Preaching creativity

Bethke-Kaliher understands the level of time and attention that's needed to be a successful special education teacher. Even in distance learning, she's impressed with the creativity that Alexandria educators are bringing to the virtual classroom.

"I see my staff as being very creative," she said. "They're thinking outside of the box in distance learning. That's what special education teachers are about. They specialize in those accommodations to present the general education curriculum in the best way possible for them."

Eliza Robertson is a Lakes Country Service Cooperative teacher in Fergus Falls. She teaches a handful of students in a region that covers Osakis to Moorhead. The theme for her classroom this year is Under the Sea.

Eliza Robertson decorated her at-home workspace to fit her classroom theme, Under the Sea, for distance learning after the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Submitted)
Eliza Robertson decorated her at-home workspace to fit her classroom theme, Under the Sea, for distance learning after the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Submitted)

"I was able to make my space Under the Sea themed as I planned for the school year," Robertson said. "I think it gives the kids a chance to feel closer to the classroom even though they're at home. They can see the decorations behind me when we video chat."

While themes and curriculums can transition to distance learning, the hands-on aspect of teaching special education is limited.

"The district is providing individual services to students based on distance learning plans for each student with a current individual education plan and within the guidelines identified by the Minnesota Department of Education," Bethke-Kaliher said. "Staff has been creative in providing virtual options for students, and some have sent home manipulative activities to engage students in learning. In addition, the staff has met with families to develop and identify accommodations to access distance learning during this time."

Wagner and Bartlett are seeing how much their students are capable of in these trying times. Even with the challenges of distance learning, they say they’re excited to continue making an impact on students.

"I've always liked helping people," Wagner said. "I love being able to help individual students and help them meet their goals. I want to help them get through their challenges and be that person to team up with them and provide them the support they need."