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How Has Special Education Had To Change, A Year Into The Pandemic?

Spencer Tritt

Today felt like the first day of school, even though Hinckley-Big Rock is eight months into the school year. That’s according to Jessica Sonntag, the director of student services there.

It’s the first day they’ve had all of their students in school all day. But, there are 20 students who have been in-person all day since last August: those who receive special ed accommodations for 70% or more of their school day.

Learning during the pandemic has been a unique challenge to every student. But remote learning can be close to impossible for some students with special needs. Many schools chose to bring special ed students back long before the rest of the school population.

“To cut their day in half, or to put them learning remotely, when you are challenged with attention and regulation disorders or comprehension," said Sonntag, "that makes learning exponentially more challenging.” 

Last spring just as schools were shutting down, Sonntag talked to WNIJ about how they were using teletherapy and trying to make sure students had internet access. She also mentioned how for a lot of special ed students, technology is “more of a distraction than a learning tool” and that there’s really not a replacement for in-person services.

Even students who still learn remotely and only get a few special ed services come into school for them and go back home for the rest of their schedule. She said during their “adaptive pause” through part of the winter when case counts were higher, those 20 students were still allowed to come to school.

Sonntag said the district used lots of pictures and colorful signs to remind these students of COVID safety measures and utilized specific PPE for services like speech therapy.

“We had these clear masks, they call them 'window masks'," said Sonntag. "So, we can see their lips and they can see ours. Our reading intervention teachers wear those as well.” 

They had a few students with requirements that forced them to be closer than six feet. For them, they had extra equipment like gowns and gloves.

Sonntag said having a small number of students meant teachers could help students who had needs that were beyond what they could provide before.  Students who had been at specialized schools that were often closed due to COVID were able to come back to Hinckley-Big Rock.

Teachers held more one-on-one therapy. Sonntag said that helped her students build close relationships. And she said they’ve been able to make significant learning progress.

Hinckley Big Rock’s staff also worked with Lurie Children’s Hospital as a trauma-designated school. Sonntag said they’re trying to build trauma-invested practices for their 120 special ed students and everyone else coming back to the school with trauma from the pandemic.