Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Gonzaga students enrolled in the special education classroom placement and classroom management courses have had to face a delayed classroom placement within schools local to the Spokane area. This set-back has given students the unique opportunity of observing challenges faced by students and teachers within the special education classroom as a result of the pandemic.  

Before receiving their placement, students were required to complete a virtual module, where they were introduced to online teaching styles and virtual educational platforms, as a part of the 30 hours they must complete observing their assigned classroom. 

With a mix of students placed in in-person and remote classrooms,  students have been able to reflect on the effects the pandemic has had within special education classrooms in each COVID-19 learning environment. 

Sarah Merlino, a student enrolled in both special education courses, attends a virtual learning classroom of seventh and eighth grade middle school students on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. They focus on mastering simple, everyday skills, like days of the week and introductory reading. 

Merlino said changes to classroom placements have set her back in comparison to other students studying education who have experienced the placement experience in the typical classroom setting. 

“I feel that [classroom placements] is just so important within education,” Merlino said. “You can’t just learn about it and then be teaching having known how it works.”

For students within special education programs, attempting to continue the typical classroom routine has been a big challenge. 

“You want to try and have them have as much independence as possible because you’re trying to teach them functional skills that will help them develop into a functional adult,” Merlino said. “With COVID-19 there are so many precautions that you have to take that independence away from them.”

Another challenge for special education facilitators and students with online teaching platforms is relationship building. 

“I honestly think that what these places are about is creating those relationships with kids and that was so hard this semester because we are all online,” Merlino said. “It’s a totally different environment than you would have if you were in person and actually getting to know the kids is difficult over a virtual platform.”

She has found it has been easiest to establish connections with the students while in reading break out groups. In the reading group, Merlino alternates reading sentences of a story and rereads portions with the students to practice comprehension skills. 

Merlino said she noticed that students seem to feel a lot less comfortable with the online, at-home learning style then they would in a traditional classroom. Students now have to face various distractions that may be happening at home while focusing on their schoolwork. 

“I know that home life isn’t always great in some areas of Spokane, and so I think that there’s also this fear that sometimes you will hear parents arguing in the background or siblings fighting,” Merlino said.

Often students are distracted by parents who ask to help their children or try to get overly involved in the classroom setting. 

“There’s all these factors that contribute to online learning that is making it so difficult for them,” Merlino said. 

Jenna Mathews is a student in the same placement class as Merlino, who was placed in an in-person high school Abilities Bases Learning and Education Support (ABLES) classroom for the semester. The five freshmen to senior students in the classroom come in person Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.

To allow for these students to learn in person while maintaining COVID-19 guidelines, Mathews said the teachers have had to split the classroom in two. While three students learn from the main classroom, the remaining two students are with their paraeducators in a neighboring classroom. 

As expected, both students and educators are required to wear face masks in the classroom, which is a challenge for ABLES students. Teachers must wear both a face mask and a shield while in contact with students in the classroom. 

“It has been a challenge to teach the students to properly wear a face masks, since they are students with severe autism,” Mathews said. “So, they either wear it for part of the time or wear it incorrectly.”

In a typical semester, the classroom placement course would require GU students to pose an intervention project specific to a student’s target behavior — either behavioral or academic — with data collected throughout the semester. Since placements were assigned much later than usual due to COVID-19, the students are unable to complete the project in the same way as past semesters. 

Students are required to set up their individualized project as if they were to collect data and implement it but are unable to actually complete the project. 

For her final project, Mathews aims to increase the receptive abilities of a student in the ABLES classroom. An example of these receptive abilities would be a student pointing to a picture of a cat in response to being asked to show a picture of a cat, Mathews said. 

Merlino said that she is focusing her project on an academic behavior of a student she was able to make a strong connection with in her reading group. Her project is a reading intervention with a goal of decreasing the percentage of errors in the student’s cold read of a story. 

Despite the frustration this semester has brought for GU students seeking experience in the classroom, both Merlino and Mathews agree that these challenges have brought to light how important it is for teachers to prioritize their students’ individual educational success. 

“I have learned that there will always be things that affect the classroom and learning environment that are out of your control as a teacher, but it is important to stay positive and continue to me a role model for students,” Mathews said. “It would be so easy as a teacher right now to get lazy or discouraged by the obstacles of COVID-19, but it is our job as teachers to prioritize the learning and well-being of our students.”

Natalie Reith is an arts & entertainment editor. Follow her on Twitter: @natalie_reith.

Natalie Rieth is an arts & entertainment editor. Follow her on Twitter: @natalie_rieth.

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