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How the pandemic changed education for students with disabilities & accommodations

DeKalb High School
Spencer Tritt
DeKalb High School

Mario McMinn’s eyes start to burn by hour five of staring at screens. He’s a high school sophomore who isn't blind but has a visual impairment. When he and everyone else were forced to learn from home in 2020, it meant his whole day was looking at his iPad and computer.

“That was a struggle for me," he said, "because then when school was over and then it's time to actually do the homework that was assigned, which was also digital, my eyes were kind of fried at that point. I'd have a headache and I couldn't focus.”

His vision teacher got him a tool that helped during remote learning and that he still uses today when he’s back in-person at school. It was a magnifying glass with a backlight around the size of a flashlight. In some classes, his vision doesn’t affect him at all. But in, say, his computer science class, the magnifying glass is great for limiting strain to his eyes.

“Say it was some form of 3D modeling graphic like whatever, right?," said McMinn. "Sometimes the print would be super small. Those kinds of things don't really come in like larger print. So, that definitely helped me.”

Gianna Guskey was Mario’s middle school vision teacher. She teaches kids who are blind or visually impaired from 3 years old all the way through 8th Grade.

Technology has been a game changer for her students over the past few years and during the pandemic. When it comes to intuitive accessibility, she says iPads have been a welcome change from clunky, expensive braille or large-print books that took forever to be made.

“Prior to digital books," said Guskey, "our students had to carry around these very large books that had the large print in it and or braille. There's no way to carry a Braille textbook in its entirety."

Many of her students use a cane and teaching mobility skills is crucial. One of her favorite activities was taking her students around downtown Chicago using public transportation. They went to Wrigley Field and tried cool restaurants. That was all shut down during COVID. That meant virtual mobility lessons like watching videos of students practicing with their canes or working on cardinal directions.

“Okay, where would you cross the street? You know, where's a good spot to cross the street?," she said. "How would you pick out landmarks in this area so when you get to that area you know ‘here's the mailbox, I know that that means that the house I need to go to is right next door?’”

Guskey’s students are back in-person now and she’s in constant communication with their teachers and parents. Sometimes a parent will call about broken glasses or a teacher who handed out an assignment without enlarging the font.

“'She came home crying today, because she couldn't see her math,'" said Guskey. "So then we just do our magic and work with the teachers and make sure that we get everything done.”

Back in-person they can also focus more on Expanded Core Curriculum to help them with daily living skills, like cooking.

Matthew Murphy is the assistant principal of student services at Bartlett High School. He says things like cooking and intentional trips out into the community were a huge loss during the pandemic for many students.

He said he feels like they did a great job finding creative solutions when moving instruction online in the early days of the pandemic. But there were challenges for students who receive services.

“How do we deliver physical therapy and occupational therapy? How do we deliver those services through an online platform?" said Murphy. "That is still one that we don't necessarily have a perfect answer for.”

A lot of times in those situations, they had to send materials to parents and try and coach them through it.

Tracy King teaches elementary students who have intellectual disabilities, many of whom are non-verbal and use wheelchairs. So much of her work involves guiding students hand-over-hand through writing or pressing down stamps. She sent lots of materials home, but so much of her students’ school success learning online was dependent on if they had really good one-on-one parental support.

“I had some parents that had three children and the child in my room was their oldest, so they'd have to go back and forth between classrooms and kids," she said. "They couldn't just sit next to the student hand-over-hand every minute."

Back in-person, safety is still King’s top priority. One of her former students died of COVID. Some COVID protocols are still in place.

“It is a major concern for me," said King, "because a lot of them have pulmonary issues. And, you know, this can turn into pneumonia."

They mask and don’t share as many materials. They’re also understaffed so It takes exponentially longer to feed the students, reposition them for a new activity or change diapers.

King and her students have also embraced technology more over the past few years.

“We're using some work technology, some different technology that we didn't use before, like the interactive screens. I put more music and my circle time activities, stuff like that," she said. "But really, the biggest difference is the time that everything takes to try to keep everyone safe and everything clean and everything.”

She hopes she’ll have more time for one-on-one activities and fun lessons like cooking. Last year, they got to do a whole unit on cooking. King says her typically-loud classroom went quiet, because they were so focused, engaged and happy.

Mario McMinn says he thinks all students who need accommodations, or any kind of support, could use some patience and help as school transitions back to “normal.”

“Sometimes those people might need a little extra help and it doesn't mean they can't do it," he said. "They are just trying to get back into it and that timeframe is a lot different for a lot of people."

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.