Online classes pose real ‘learning curve’ for special needs students, say B.C. educators and parents

A student with special needs connects with educational assistant Theresa Bennett over a video call. (B.C. Catholic photo - CCN)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – With schools closed and classes being taught online, families have a tough enough time adapting to new routines and technologies during the ongoing pandemic. But for families of students with special needs, distance learning can be an even bigger hurdle.

“There’s quite a learning curve for them,” said Antonella MacGillivray, a learning support teacher at Star of the Sea Catholic School in Surrey, B.C.

Parents tell her it has been difficult for children who face autism, behavioural issues, learning disabilities, or other challenges to complete assignments online.

“First, there’s navigating the technology, and then the fact that they are completely out of the routine. Their learning environment is completely different. They don’t have the social connections, which is a huge part, especially in the younger grades.”

One-on-one, in-person learning is the cornerstone of education plans for children with special needs at Star of the Sea and other Catholic schools. But MacGillivray said her team of educational assistants is not about to let children with special needs feel left behind in the digital world.

“Right now, we’re seeing online face-to-face over Google Meet. If that doesn’t work, my job is to figure out: how do I get them to learn this time? If they are a paper and pencil kind of person, I might have to adjust that to make it work for them,” she said.

Some students have a difficult time paying attention to a small screen; others struggle with dyslexia or reading disabilities; still others are hypersensitive to noise and things happening around them. “We have to change our ways for what works for them.”

Nicole Regush oversees 550 educational assistants and hundreds of other professionals as the acting director of the learning support department for the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese (CISVA).

She said in the last few weeks she’s seen efforts “bordering on heroic” when it comes to teaching children with diverse needs over long distances.

“There’s a real focus on making sure the vulnerable, isolated, and overwhelmed are prioritized,” she said. That goes for students and parents.

“Society puts a lot on parents,” and some parents and caregivers are juggling unemployment or working from home along with the educational needs of several children. For some, English is not their first language. She asks teachers to “be sensitive that what we ask is reasonable and appropriate” in unprecedented times.

Michelle, a parent who requested we only use her first name, said she was both excited and nervous when she found out her son with complex needs would have to continue his learning online while schools were closed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Nothing beats in-person learning, especially with his situation,” she said. “I didn’t know how they would go about it.” As the family adapted to virtual classes, Michelle said online learning helped her son cope with the isolation of staying home and continue learning how to socialize with his peers.

“Seeing him interacting with his teachers and classmates is such a pleasure to watch,” she said. “Although not all programs can be done on online learning, it is still definitely an important and breakthrough instrument.”

One instrument in the toolbox of local schools is RISE at Home, a new online program by the Vancouver-based non-profit Learning Disabilities Society (LDS). Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Joseph,, St. Edmund, St. Andrew, and St. Francis of Assisi schools currently use the program, along with several public schools.

“I don’t think anything can 100 per cent replace in-person learning,” said executive director Rachel Forbes. She sees their virtual program as filling in gaps “of service and routine” and offering the structured learning that “a lot of kids who are challenged with learning disabilities do really need to thrive and succeed.”

RISE at Home uses video calls and an interactive online whiteboard Forbes said seems to be working quite well for many students, though “there’s a huge diversity of learning needs, styles, and challenges we have to accommodate.”

The LDS also offers workshops for parents with tips and tricks to working with children who have learning disabilities and how to apply for disability tax credits.

When schools closed, so did Vanspec. This one-on-one religious education program is the only way some children with special needs are able to prepare to receive the sacraments.

Director Laura Levera said though classes are cancelled until further notice, some of the five Vanspec centres are coordinating video calls, phone calls, and emails to stay in touch with families and encourage children to keep learning about their Catholic faith in some way.

“We’re not putting the pressure on parents right now,” said Levera. “For Holy Week, I shared some Holy Week activities but I said, ‘please, this is not an assignment, but rather an activity that the kids can do with you.’”

While Vanspec waits for classes to resume, Levera said staying in touch with families to hear their unique challenges and encourage them to keep up regular faith activities, like prayer at meal times, is doing a lot of good.

“We thrive on our sense of community. Vanspec is like a big family.”

In the complex virtual world facing children with special needs and their families, CISVA associate superintendent Sandra Marshall sees a silver lining.

“Sometimes it’s been easy to revert to those traditional methods. Now that people can’t rely on those anymore, there’s more a personalized approach to education and meeting the learners where they are at,” she said. “It’s re-prioritizing what we’re doing as educators.”

Regush said it’s also been a time of great creativity for teachers.

“We get used to doing things a certain way and we go about our business and it becomes rote,” she said. Now, “creativity is required by necessity because we can’t do things the way we always do.”

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