With nearly all school districts across the nation closed due to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, many students are forced to learn remotely and create their own new educational experiences, at least for the time being.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump announced that he was extending the federal social distancing guidelines, which were originally scheduled to end today, until April 30. The industry can expect that the coronavirus impact isn’t going away any time soon.
As of this writing, Education Week reported that six states, (New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Virginia, and Vermont) are now closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. However, for the student transportation industry’s most vulnerable population, students with disabilities and special needs, not having the normalcy that the regular school day provides is creating an entirely different challenge.
“Schools provide this opportunity for structure for so many students and predictability of what their day is going to look like,” said Ben Magras, the executive director of student outcomes for Intermediate District 287 in Minnesota. “The environment that we are in right now, where students don’t have that same structure in terms of schoolwork, we are doing our best to replicate that for them.”
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Intermediate District 287, located 46 miles west of Minneapolis, serves students with varying levels of disabilities. Magras said the school closure has been especially challenging for these students with unique needs, and the district is working on addressing all of them.
Linda Bluth, a consultant to the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Early Intervention Services/Special Education, stressed to School Transportation News that all students, no matter their abilities, have different challenges. She said developing a best practice isn’t appropriate in the current coronavirus situation because one size does not fit all.
She noted that people are struggling to maintain their mental health, among all the other physical and economic challenges currently being encountered.
Magras agreed and said that the pandemic is presenting not only students but adults with anxiety, and the society as a whole needs to be cognitive of universal mental health.
Industry consultant Alexandra Robinson shared that “recess,” or outside play, remains an important part of everyone’s day, for students and parents alike.
“Being in lockdown, quarantine, isolation, whatever you want to call it depending on your state, does not mean you [have] to stay inside,” Robinson said. “Going for a ride in the car with your family is okay, as long as you’re still with the same people you live with. Going outside and breathing in fresh air, maybe doing an obstacle course in your backyard [is all okay].”
Robinson noted that during this time, basic needs should be prioritized.
“For students with disabilities, more than likely they are home without all of the supports that they truly need. Just starting with basic needs is important,” Robinson said. “I think basic needs, need to be met and academic needs, need to be put on a hold for a while first.”
Patrick Mulick, a certified child behavior analyst, told School Transportation News that for some students even the smallest change presents an enormous challenge.
“We can only imagine the challenge that this would bring, to have an unexpected closure,” Mulick explained. “Just for us as adults, it could be challenging, and it was brought on us to immediately to start planning and thinking differently in a very quick way.”
He added, “For students with disabilities, specifically students with autism, one of their huge deficits is not being able to handle sudden change. And sudden change could be something as small as a change in a bus driver or change in what is expected for lunch. Even small changes could be difficult. We know this is extremely difficult for a number of our students with disabilities to be able to handle.”
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Mulick, who is also an educational consultant and the assistant director of autism and student independence at Auburn School District #408 in Washington state, said his school district bus drivers are delivering meals to students under age 18. He pointed out that even a short interaction gives students a sense of familiarity.
Dennis Grad, the Auburn School District executive director of transportation and McKinney-Vento liaison, agreed. “I think anything familiar with the kids is really important,” he added. “We have seen with the drivers being out there, they are really excited to see that piece of it, so it’s a good thing.”