This is the second story in a series about how COVID-19 is changing the landscape of education.
Schools were among the first to fall to coronavirus.
A week after the first COVID-19 case emerged in Pennsylvania in March, Gov. Tom Wolf mandated a two-week hiatus for in-class instruction.
About a month after the first case, Wolf closed schools for the rest of the semester.
“We felt that we were in a place where we had to make a decision based on the school calendar,” Pedro Rivera explained during a media conference call last week.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of Education cited another reason for the closures — namely that most districts have been able to implement a substantial continuity of education plan.
How teachers teach is evolving.
“There is a general consensus amongst most educators that it is best for young children to have hands-on, 'live' instruction,” said Suzanne Rose, professor and graduate program coordinator in the Slippery Rock University elementary and early childhood education department.
Online learning regulated by the pandemic isn't just changing the way students study. It's changing the way teachers teach.
Under normal circumstances, Rose doesn't use virtual learning in her undergraduate classes. She incorporates technologies in class assignments so teaching candidates can evaluate their usefulness.
“Virtual learning is not widely used in early childhood or elementary learning,” Rose said.
Vaughn Bicehouse, an assistant professor in SRU's special education department, said it's important for teacher candidates — and their teachers — to adapt during the pandemic.
“I see it as an opportunity,” Bicehouse said. “Who's to say this isn't going to start all over next year?”
Kelly Lane graduated from SRU in May 2019 and became an emotional support teacher in Beaver Falls Area School District in August 2019. She works with children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“Typically, I have 14 kids on my roster,” Lane said.
Lane said Beaver Falls Area closed March 17 and began online instruction March 30. Over those two weeks, Lane said the district looked for digital curriculum, evaluated student accessibility and prepared to go online.
“It's been a learning curve,” said Lane, who is also a graduate student.
Some of her greatest resources are her former teachers.
A number of Bicehouse's former special education teacher candidates are seeking his guidance during the pandemic. Specifically, they ask if he has insight on how to handle transition plans for their students.
Transition plans are part of any individualized education plan, more commonly known as an IEP. They're constructed around a special education student's skills and needs to prepare him or her for the future.
Because they're rewritten every year, teachers need to be able to access students and their work.
“That's a real problem right now,” Bicehouse said.
Rose said while her teacher candidates remain on task for this semester, their courses are adapting.
“Candidates are being taught the same content they would have had in their traditional courses, but in other ways,” Rose said. “What is missing is some of the small-group discussion which is valuable to the learning process.”
To accommodate group collaboration, Rose said some courses are synchronous, meaning multiple students log into their classes at the time they'd normally attend.
But with college students now scattered across the United States, such a format isn't always feasible. Rose said some teachers are using asynchronous arrangements to reach students.
“They are not required to 'log in' to a live classroom at a given time,” Rose said.
Routine is important for students in general, but it's particularly helpful for special education students. Bicehouse explained this demographic sometimes needs class structure for learning as well as behavioral support.
The challenge with virtual learning is helping students maintain a routine. Lane's responsibility as an emotional support teacher is two-fold. She must help her students access both academic and emotional education.
Most of her work now involves making sure her students are logging on to virtual lessons and doing work. She also has to be creative. For example, she records herself reading aloud to help students with reading.
“I'm trying to make them at ease with what's going on,” Lane said. “Most of them have adjusted well.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced March 15 that districts must decide for themselves which method to employ for a continuity of education plan.
The department also said no matter which method is used, local education agencies “must ensure full access to learning for all students, with particular attention to free appropriate public education for students with disabilities.”
Rivera said the state received more than 300 plans from districts. There are 500 public districts in Pennsylvania. In instances where districts might not be able to get academic work to special education students virtually, school has stopped altogether.
Districts don't want to run the risk of litigation post-pandemic.
Bicehouse understands why some districts are uncomfortable with the state's position, but believes districts need to reach all students if they plan to continue education.
“I think people are just running scared now,” Bicehouse said. “(But students) still have to receive these special education services.”
The month of April is recognized at National Autism Awareness Month and advocates recently celebrated April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day.
About one in 50 children is now identified as being on the autism spectrum, according to Bicehouse. The National Autism Association (NAA) says autism can impact a child's ability to interact, communicate and function cognitively.
With pandemic-induced school closures, many parents and teachers are concerned about the accessibility of education for students. Accessibility can be even more marginalized for special education students like those on the autism spectrum.
“To me, the laws protect these students,” Bicehouse said. “That shouldn't be backed away from right now.”
Bicehouse said he's guided his former students to online resources and videos designed to help them teach through the pandemic.
“It's really become a conundrum,” Bicehouse said. “What you're going to do online is not the one-on-one that you need.”
“I would rather — 100 times over — be in the classroom,” Lane said.
Part of Bicehouse's curriculum under normal conditions does give future teachers a chance to explore virtual education. One program lets teachers “log in” directly with students. But this is a training tool. It's not available on the scale needed today.
Rose said pandemic regulations are benefiting her graduate-level students. These are teachers earning their certifications as reading specialists. Virtual learning is helping them to use Zoom and Google Hangouts for group projects.
“It's actually been a wonderful experience for them,” Rose said. “I have already decided to revise one of the projects in the future.”
Still, Rose adds, virtual platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts won't be replacing teacher-student relationships.
“The technology is only a medium through which the message is sent,” Rose said. “It is the teacher who makes the difference.”
There are many questions surrounding educational expectations during the pandemic. Unfortunately, there aren't as many answers.
Rivera said the pandemic is “going to change the education landscape for generations to come.”
Rose isn't so sure. With growing concerns about the effects of screen time on youngsters, she believes converting primary curriculum to a virtual format is counterproductive.
“It is quite possible that there will be more attention paid to virtual instruction for young students,” Rose said. “But it is my opinion that it is, and will likely remain, the second-best option.”
Every teacher candidate has a great responsibility, according to Bicehouse. But in the end, any academic shortcomings don't fall on the student.
“If my students aren't achieving, it's my fault,” Bicehouse said.
For Bicehouse, the key to education evolving through the pandemic lies in communication. He hopes officials “talk to the people” on the front lines before implementing a plan of action.
“I really hope the decision-makers include us,” Bicehouse said.
Lane sees the bond between parents and teachers growing stronger while kids are learning from home. Parents ask teachers for guidance to help kids focus. Teachers check-in with parents to see how students are doing.
In terms of education, Bicehouse believes good will come out of the pandemic. Rose agrees. She sees this moment in history as a time when districts will re-evaluate technology needs and become bigger community players.
“The students need us to be there for them,” Rose said. “We will be there.”