All In: Meeting the Needs of Special Education Students in a Remote Learning Environment
Thank you Jean Carlson for your message of resilience, perseverance and hope. Your email brought a smile to my face as I imagined the conversation you had with your students. Thanks so much for allowing me to share it, and thank you for all you do for students.
From Jean Carlson’s email:
“As we all are, I am currently endeavouring to strike a balance between supporting the emotional well-being of my students and encouraging these young scholars to remain engaged in their schoolwork to the best of their ability. Last week, as I was explaining the students’ assignment for independent work and reminding them it is important for them to turn their work in, one student called out, “But now school is closed until the end of the year.”
This led to a class discussion about how the buildings are closed, but we are still learning and growing and getting ready for (in our case) fifth grade. In short, school is still on! At the end, the boy reiterated, albeit in a much softer voice, “but they said school is closed.”
It led me to check the exact wording of the message on the front page of the MCPS website. “… all Maryland schools are to remain closed for the rest of the school year.”
To some this is a clear message; to others perhaps “just semantics;” to others still, a loophole; but this statement does say that “school is closed,” like, say, a snow day.
All this brings me to my point, that is to ask: Would you consider changing slightly the communication from “school is closed,” to (something like) “School buildings are closed, but SCHOOL IS STILL ON!!?”
My initial thought was more specific wording results in more clear messaging. However, as I reflected further on my student’s statement, I realized there is to be even more gained with this rephrasing. It is an opportunity to communicate a reason to celebrate! It is a message of perseverance. Despite the fact that school buildings are closed, school is still on. We are still learning, even though we can’t get on the bus with our friends, run around on the playground and walk the halls of school with our classmates. We are still learning and moving forward! We will not let coronavirus stop our education!!!”
4th Grade Teacher
And, we’ve changed the website message!
School is still on and an incredibly vivid example of that is found in the discussion I had with five teachers in our special education program. These five were so thoughtful and student-centered as they shared insights, thoughts and feelings about their work; the abrupt changes in how they are working and the innovative efforts they are making to meet the needs of students. They illustrated perfectly the critical elements of science, art and heart needed in our work with students every day and now, more than ever.
Thank you Britanny Miller, Carrie Carlson, Jerry Turner, Kristin Secan and Susan Russell—the five of you, along with Jean Carlson—demonstrate that school is still on and that you bring infinite amounts of science, art and heart to the job.
In case you missed it, Dr. Smith also published a blog on Sunday, May 17. It is reprinted below.
The Pandemic, The Budget and The Future
When I publicly presented my Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Recommended Operating Budget on December 18, 2019, I had no way of knowing that on March 16, 2020, just three months later, school buildings across Maryland would close to students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 6, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced that school buildings will be closed for the remainder of the school year. How drastically things have changed in just five months.
For the last two months, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) staff has been offering online learning experiences, as well as a myriad of other services to students and their families. This has involved enormous amounts of planning and effort by our teachers, administrators and support staff.
Even as we move toward the end of this school year, we are busy planning for three possibilities for summer and next school year: that we will continue to offer only online instruction for students; that we will have a hybrid online and in-person system; or that we will return to in-person learning, albeit most likely structured differently from what we have had in the past. We are also looking at how to use time differently. For example, we are looking at summer learning options, Saturday offerings and other after-school programs. All of these require major adjustments to our FY 2021 budget.
In addition to changing our budget to reflect a different way of offering learning experiences and protecting student and staff safety in the coming year, the economic impact of COVID-19 means we will have significantly less funding for next year than we initially requested.
The MCPS budget is funded by two basic entities—the local government and the State of Maryland (a very small percentage comes from the federal government and other sources). Both state and local entities are seeing major reductions in their revenue, and the local government is unable to fund our school system right now at the level that they had anticipated.
As a result, on May 14, the Montgomery County Council reached a preliminary agreement that funds the MCPS Fiscal Year operating budget at Maintenance of Effort (Maintenance of Effort is a state law established in 1984 that requires every local government to spend at least as much per student as it did the previous year to receive additional state aid for education). While we have not heard of any decrease to our state funding, in April, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot outlined a potential 15 percent shortfall to this year’s state budget, which ends June 30.
While there is some federal funding available from the CARES Act, it will not sufficiently cover the changes that have to be made in order to meet the needs of our students during this crisis.
In the short term, this means that we must reduce our proposed budget for next year (FY 2021) by $44 million in county revenue right now, while also adding to the budget to address the current circumstances. So, how do we do this?
First and foremost, we must maintain our commitment to excellence and equity. We must still approach our work with the needs of each student at the forefront, always remembering that All Means All. As our Board President Shebra Evans said to the County Council on May 7, “This unprecedented international health emergency, and its significant impact on our local community, economy and resources, does require us to refocus and reprioritize our work to prevent learning loss and new disparities in academic outcomes between student groups.”
Additionally, providing support for our local education strategy and priorities is the State Board of Education’s Maryland Together: Maryland’s Recovery Plan for Education and the Governor’s Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery.
We are actively restructuring the FY 2021 budget with these core values and plans in mind. Since we do not know when students will be able to physically return to the classroom, we are specifically focused on three major areas of our work:
More learning time for students and curricular changes must be provided for the 2020-21 school year.
We must provide significantly more learning time for students this summer and throughout next year, especially those who have experienced the greatest learning loss this spring. Additionally, our curriculum must change. For example, it must reflect our need to teach students how to protect their physical safety in the wake of this health crisis. Curriculum in all content areas must also be written in ways that work well on virtual platforms. Instructional materials must be provided so students can access them from home, if necessary.
Professional development is needed for all staff, in all areas of our work.
Academically, teachers need to have skills appropriate to teaching in online classrooms. Students will also need more social-emotional support. Learning environments will be different, and a student’s ability to access support from teachers and friends will be as well. Some of our students are facing major losses in their personal lives during this pandemic, and we must be able to support them through this. In many ways, every student is at risk. Every area of our work will be different. Bus drivers must know how to transport students safely. Food service personnel will have new systems in place. Building service workers will have new procedures for safety and cleanliness. The list goes on because this new health situation affects everything we do.
Finally, our technology systems must be top notch.
Every student must have access to devices and connectivity. Every teacher must be able to use the systems and platforms effectively. All staff will be working differently than the ways they worked before March 16.
Most importantly, we must take individual needs of students and staff into account as we navigate this new world. We must have a plan to support individuals with underlying health concerns, as well as students whose primary language is not English and those with special learning needs.
MCPS employees are working on this effort individually, with other staff in our school system, with members of our community, and with colleagues across the state and nation. It will take our collective IQ to come up with solutions that support all students, regardless of their needs.
This global pandemic impacts absolutely everything we do now and likely everything we will do for years to come. While we should hope for the best, we must prepare for budgetary uncertainty for the foreseeable future, given the negative impact COVID-19 has had on our economy. What we do now will set the stage for this coming school year as well as for years to come. Is it daunting? At times. Is it important? Absolutely. One thing is for sure—there is no place I would rather be working on this. We are in this together, and together we will find ways to provide the best educational opportunities for our students in safe and secure environments.