Special education teachers in Milford go to the students

From left, Shelly Gonzalez ,11, gets special education instruction outside her home with the help of Donna Thompson and Karen Reynolds, one-on-one paraprofessionals at Milford Central Academy. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

MILFORD — The Milford School District may be starting its academic year remotely, but that doesn’t mean some students won’t be seeing their teachers in person.

Some special education students at Milford Central Academy, a middle school, will receive daily visits from teachers for one-on-one instruction in addition to their independent remote work.

“We started to work on trying to figure out what we were going to do back in mid-July, and when it became apparent we were going to be remote, we volunteered to put this together,” said Jack Rodgers, a life skills teacher in MCA’s special education department.

“The way it’ll work is we’ll try to see everyone for at least an hour every day, time permitting,” said Elizabeth Elder, who co-teaches with Mr. Rodgers.

Student Shelly Gonzalez, 11, (6th grade) reads to Milford Central Academy special education teacher Jack Rodgers dressed in a unicorn costume to pique interest in learning.

She said the teachers, who will work in teams of two, will teach a student a lesson every day and leave practice work to be done independently.

“The person that comes the next day will check in with them, see what they didn’t finish and help them if they needed help,” Ms. Elder said.

“This just gives us an opportunity to meet with them in the safest possible environment –outside,” Mr. Rodgers said.

“We still have the guidelines when we’re at the person’s house, that we keep our distance, we wear our masks,” Ms. Elder said.

She felt like working with students outside lowered the risk for her.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable now,” Ms. Elder said, “because we’re in an outside learning environment, which research has said is safer, as far as the spread.”

On Friday morning, Ms. Elder, Mr. Rodgers and three paraprofessional educators went to visit 11-year-old Shelly Gonzalez of Harrington, one of the special needs students in the life skills class Ms. Elder and Mr. Rodgers teach together.

Mr. Rodgers arrived in a unicorn costume in an attempt to pique Shelly’s interest. The group congregated at a folding table in Shelly’s front yard to work on her reading skills.

“I think it’s great,” Shelly’s mother Elizabeth Gonzalez said in Spanish. “For kids with the capacity of my daughter, online classes make things a little more complicated because they get distracted easily… With the one-on-one instruction, I find that she can take better advantage than she could online.”

Ms. Gonzalez was grateful that her daughter’s school was working to meet their needs in this challenging time.

“If she doesn’t keep track of her academic regiment, she’s going to be more strained than usual,” she said of Shelly.

“They’re trying to find the best alternative so that they can learn and take their classes,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “With this part at least, I’m pleased that the children are taking their classes in a different way.”

Her daughter depends on the school for more than education, though.

“I think if she doesn’t have her instruction or her therapy, she’s not going to do well in school,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “It’s very important that she goes to her therapy. I depend on that a lot.”

Mr. Rodgers said online schooling doesn’t work well for many special education students, and even in the previous school year Milford Central Academy’s special education classes did not make use of it. For the final months of the previous academic year, Ms. Elder said she tried to engage students through letter-writing.

“We even had some students write the mayor, different councilmen and things like that,” she said. “They actually got a response back and the kids were so excited.”

The local politicians said it “was rare that they got thanked, especially by a student, so they really commended them for doing that,” Ms. Elder said.

This was in addition to establishing close lines of communication with individual students’ homes.

“We would make phone calls at home and ask them how they were doing and if they had any questions with the work that was dropped off,” said Robin Gielarowski, a paraprofessional educator who will be visiting students this year.

“Many of our children have attentional sorts of concerns, and there is plenty of research to show that gamified computer systems exacerbate those conditions,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Data security is a big concern too.”

He added that it’s simply not healthy for children to be looking at screens all day.

“I think the (American Psychological Association’s) suggestion is like two hours a day,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Unfortunately, with our kids a lot of the time it gets used as daycare, so they’ve already used their two hours before we even show up.”

Donna Thompson, another paraprofessional educator who will be visiting special needs students, said technology can complicate education for parents as well.

“I think a lot of the computer programs, some of these parents just don’t understand how to do that without assistance,” she said.

Ms. Thompson stressed how integral parental involvement is to students’ success with their at-home work.

“What I like about it is the parents are involved,” she said. “I think they feel more comfortable having someone there showing their child how to do things and the personal relationships you can form via doing that.”

Mr. Rodgers said he relishes the opportunity to work closely with his students at home.

“You get to see their families, their pets,” he said. “It gives you an idea of who they really are.”

The program’s winter plan is not entirely fleshed out yet.

“We’ve got these tents,” Mr. Rodgers said, which can fold up and fit into a teacher’s trunk. “Interestingly, the families of some of these children are clearing out their garages so they can open that up, because it’s kind of heated in there, but you can keep the doors open.”

Still, he hoped that by the time winter rolls around the school would be able to return to a more traditional form of in-person education.

“With any luck, by the time the weather gets colder, things will be in a better place as a country and a community,” Mr. Rodgers said. “For now, we’re very fortunate we have the administrative support to do this.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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