School days for New York City children with special needs were upended this year by a confusing mix of remote and in-person learning, new safety rules and a general sense of anxiety hanging in the sanitized air.

Special-education teachers, struggling to help their students learn during the pandemic, came up with new ways to connect.

Now—less than eight weeks into the fall semester—they face the challenge of an all-remote environment. In-person learning has been shut down as COVID-19 cases have increased.

The shutdown comes at an especially fraught moment for special-ed students.

“I’m worried we will have a hard time getting them back now,” said Sophie Cebollero, who teaches at the Bronx Writing Academy.

“Attendance among my students is already starting to dwindle at this point in the year,” said Sophie Cebollero, who teaches sixth and seventh graders at  the Bronx Writing Academy, a middle school on East 167th Street. “I’m worried we will have a hard time getting them back now that parents have to make adjustments to the new fully remote schedule.”

Teachers had already feared that students who depend on individualized support have been losing the kind of instruction they need most. Even in the classroom, students were mostly learning from their laptops.

To combat Zoom and computer fatigue at home and in the classroom, they had been trying to give their students time away from screens and support  learning by introducing elements such as more music and songs. 

“They feel bored, they feel a little insulted, the ones at home feel lonely, they wanna be back in school,”  Cebollero said of the blended environment when school buildings were open. “I had one of my seventh graders say to me, ‘Is this it?'”

The Trouble With Distance

Special-education students often need physical touch and social interaction to help them learn. But social-distancing requirements made it difficult for students to connect with each other and their teachers. Students had trouble keeping their masks on properly and eating lunch in a shorter window. 

“It feels really dystopian and depressing in the classroom. They’re really quiet and subdued,” Andrea Menchini, 28, who teaches eighth graders in person at a public school in Brooklyn, said earlier this fall. 

Special-ed students have individualized education plans (IEPs) designed to address specific needs. Some students are taught in self-contained classrooms, where they learn alongside other special-ed students. Some learn among general-education classmates. 

According to the city Department of Education, as of 2019 there were around 198,000 K-12 students with IEPs. This school year, with students partially or fully online, meeting all of the requirements of the plans had been nearly impossible, teachers say.

Cebollero, 27, started a recent remote class by asking the children what makes them good students. All of their cameras were off on the Google Meet, so much-needed eye contact was missing. Some of them had distracting background noise as they struggled to mute their audio. She asked the question because she anticipated their worries about first marking-period report cards.

“Remote learning is hard! Sixth grade is still new to you, Chromebooks aren’t perfect, you are smart, you are capable of learning, you are doing the best you can,” read some of her slides. 

“If you are not happy with your grade, it’s OK,” she reassured them.   

Sophie Cebollero’s Bronx classroom, where desks were spaced far apart.

In normal times, teachers had their own classrooms to decorate. With the hectic start to the year, many teachers worked in classrooms they could not customize.

Cebollero taught in-person two or three days a week and the other two from home. She said her classroom felt like a storage closet, with extra desks stacked up in the back and few decorations on the walls, making it feel claustrophobic and uninviting. The students were spaced six feet apart and sat with their computers open. 

Teachers who had students both in person and online say they did not get  enough guidance on how to implement IEPs when working remotely. 

INCLUDEnyc, a nonprofit devoted to supporting students with learning and physical disabilities, said that nearly 8,000 parents and professionals have contacted the organization for information this school year, a 200% increase. 

“The pandemic has greatly exacerbated the preexisting achievement gap between general-education students and students with disabilities,” Lori Podvesker, INCLUDEnyc’s director of disability and education policy, said in a statement last month. She called on the city to do more to improve how students are being taught. Department officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the News Service.

Teachers’ New Tactics 

Instructors across the city said they have had to work out for themselves how to help students succeed. 

“They’re already nine steps behind in terms of curriculum,” Jessica Burton, who teaches at PS 151 in East Harlem.

Jessica Burton, 28, a fifth-grade special-ed teaching assistant in an inclusive classroom at PS 151 in East Harlem, had been in school five days a week. Even so, she mainly taught from the laptop because some students were fully remote. She worried about their ability to learn in both settings: “They’re already nine steps behind in terms of curriculum.”

For math, Burton printed out multiplication problems instead of having students do them on their iPads. For reading lessons, she had students write out cause-and-effect relationships on Post-It notes, to minimize screen-time.  

Maria Melendez, 56, a special-education teacher for 15 years who instructs third and fourth graders at a nonprofit school in Long Island City, has been doing more sing-a-longs to help them feel acclimated, traditional tunes like  “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” 

Yet, despite their extra effort, progress this semester has been slow, teachers say.

“They’re definitely behind, they’re struggling with work completion, their brains are fried by 12 p.m.,” Menchini said when schools were open. “They haven’t had this amount of work or had to pay attention for this long. The screens are a problem, and they get distracted easily.”

Pandemic supply baskets for Cebollero’s sixth and seventh graders.

Even the lunch period changed for the worse, with some students hesitant to order a meal. Normally, students had hot lunches and would be allowed to snack during classes. This year, safety protocols mandate that students only were given bagged sandwiches they had to eat during a smaller window of time. They were also restricted from socializing. 

“They don’t like that they have to wait until lunch to eat and they don’t like the school lunch,” Cebollero said when schools were open. “They struggle to stay in their seats and eat in the 15-minute time frame.”

Students could take off their masks briefly to eat. But mask adherence throughout the day was a struggle. Melendez had her students do a reading activity about the importance of wearing masks and washing hands. She thinks it helped.

Still, doing her job safely remained difficult. Many special-needs students need physical touch to support their learning.

“If they’re crying, I comfort them,” she said. “I have to be in close contact with them because I’m not going to stop being who I am. I am not afraid. Because if I go there with the fear that I’m going to  get something, I won’t be able to do my job.”

Fears That Linger 

Menchini said her school did its best to make her feel safe. But even before COVID-19, the building had been covered in scaffolding and water from the school’s fountains was not safe to drink.

Cebollero would have preferred to have plexiglass dividers between the students’ desks and hers in the classroom, and windows that opened wide enough to make her feel safe. She applied to teach remotely out of concern for coronavirus affecting a high-risk person in her household, but she was denied.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday, she left her home in Jackson Heights armed with a mask and sanitizer, hoping for the best on her way to the South Bronx, an hour away by subway.

“Honestly, in the beginning of the year, my commutes home consisted of crying and being on the phone with my mom about the day,” she said. “It kind of all hit at the end of the day.”