Special Education Teachers, Students, and Parents Speak Out

We asked a group of teachers, parents, and students to share an important moment or story related to their role in special education during the pandemic. Here’s what they shared . . .

By Zo Clement, Fabian Rivera Segarra, Mercedes N. Muñoz, Joseph R. Passi, Faith Ann Douglas, Monise Seward, Saili S. Kulkarni, Samuel Bland, Monica Gonzalez, Justice McDonald, Carson Chodos, and Sophia Johansson

(From left to right: Zo Clement, Fabian Rivera Segarra, Mercedes N. Muñoz, Joseph R. Passi, Faith Ann Douglas, Monise Seward, Saili S. Kulkarni, Samuel Bland, Monica Gonzalez, Justice McDonald, Carson Chodos, and Sophia Johansson)

Some Students Are Flying
By Zo Clement

I have been continually amazed at the resilience of my students during the pandemic. As an 8th-grade inclusion teacher in Washington, D.C., my scholars have kept my heart strong.

While there are hardships I’ve lost sleep over — the students who miss class when hopping between homes, those who have lost family members — I also have students I lost the most sleep over in previous years taking off, flying. It almost feels as though the pandemic and uprising have supercharged them with a sense of their own agency. 

There are students who will come by for “Zoom office hours” to track progress on their IEP goals and hang out for an extra 45 minutes just because they can. It is during these times that I learn about their empathy for a classmate’s hardship, their true feelings about Nipsey Hussle, the cops on their block, how coming out to their mom went, their dreams of being a travel nurse, their love for an older brother, and the fact that they are “getting into witchy stuff.” 

The “direct message” feature on Zoom has also made a way for shy students to copy and paste work and get real-time feedback, share comments, or to clarify a concept without drawing extra attention. Yesterday, a formerly struggling student sent me a direct message privately during a class discussion about “a time you felt unseen.” She asked to meet later for work time and to talk about it. This student has been skyrocketing academically, and so much of it seems to be because of the close, individual time she is able to have with teachers that is so much more flexible, anonymous to peers, and accessible from anywhere.

Zo Clement is an activist and middle school special educator living on Piscataway land (aka Washington, D.C.). They care most about their students, their community, and our collective liberation.


The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning: A Student Perspective
By Fabian Rivera Segarra

Zoom learning has not been so great because I get distracted. For example, one thing I do is play with my phone charger instead of working. I play on the Xbox and watch TV shows.

I don’t learn as much as when I am in a classroom. Learning has been tough because the computer has tech issues. When I am doing work on Zoom my computer turns off or it freezes and it says the internet is unstable. One time I was working on fractions in math then everything got frozen up.

However, one way it has been easier is that when I need help reading something, I just underline it and I can hear the word and see what it means. Here are some other pros: When I need help understanding something I can just search it up online, and when people get loud I can just lower the volume. Now the cons: My screen freezes sometimes and it turns off so I have to sign in again, and you need the password for a lot of things to just get to the class, like it’s hard to get into Khan Academy. Also it’s super hard to make friends now. For example, during lunch when the class ends you can’t talk to people. And sometimes when I am angry I need a friend to talk to. Having a friend helps to not be angry.

Fabian Rivera Segarra is 12 years old and from Ponce, Puerto Rico. He currently lives in Boston and wants to be a U.S. Marine and police officer or a history teacher. 


Out of the Red 
By Mercedes N. Muñoz 

I sit looking at rows and rows of data. I can pinpoint the outcomes of students in special education based on two intersecting factors — race and class. 

Every number on my spreadsheet represents a child. A child I am tasked with re-engaging and moving on track toward graduation. Reviewing each name on the list, I ask: What dreams and desires exist for this young life? This is the question that haunts me. 

I spend time reading educational journals, scrolling educator Instagram and Edutopia feeds looking for tips, strategies, and suggestions for virtual teaching that will spark a colleague, student, parent — all around me the images reflect glamour, educators who appear to have this thing down, and I wonder why it is that most days, special education is so-not-sexy. From the stacks of yellowing file folders containing individualized education plans, to the “special classrooms” relegated  to back hallways and basements — my neck runs hot with frustration, my brain a grumbling haze. 

I stuff my ego into my socks, walking in the direction of student voices from past and present. 

I hear Tydell, who stands at the Black History Celebration and reads his poem in front of his peers. As they clap, cry, and holler, I take it in. A student who struggled to stay in his fully integrated English classroom has written a masterpiece, and feels connected enough to share.

These are the victories we live for. Small moments, not always wrapped up neatly in a bow — and yet they matter incredibly. The smile on his face, the general education teacher who is stretched thin by the demands of a push-in class, and a special education teacher who holds high expectations and anticipates student success bit by bit — all threading together on this educational loom. A tapestry made rich by our collective efforts. Our daily commitment to be a child’s champion is what moves us out of the red.

Mercedes N. Muñoz (munozmrs76@outlook.com) is the 9th-grade Student Success Team lead and instructional coach at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. A special education teacher, Muñoz was Oregon’s 2020 Teacher of the Year. She received the 2021 Award for Teaching Excellence by the NEA Foundation.


Disability Is Still Disregarded with an Alarming Ease
By Joseph R. Passi

The historic disenfranchisement of students with disabilities in schools is well-documented, as are the countless anecdotes and micronarratives distilling the continued hiddenness of disability in mainstream discourses. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. 

As a special education teacher, I often try to get a sense of how students experience the phenomenon of disability. I recently tried to extend and ground these conversations with students given the severity of the current moment. After using W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of twoness to analyze the divergent spaces the African American family in Mildred Taylor’s short story The Gold Cadillac experienced — including being profiled, harassed, and falsely accused of a crime by two white police officers in the segregated South — I decided to have students also apply this notion of twoness to disability. I had students consider the following: If someone asked you about your disability, how would you describe it? Or if someone knew you had a disability but never heard your viewpoint, what might they say? Like so many conversations with students with disabilities, this was an illuminating exercise.

“I would,” starts Anna, “describe my disability as like a problem with learning that I sometimes have. I need some more time and help, but I’m just like everyone else.”

“And,” I respond, “since we are looking at this concept of twoness — you know, how you see yourself versus how others might see you — what might other people say about your disability?”

Anna answers flatly: “They say I’m stupid.”  

I would guess that Anna would offer a similar evaluation of the socially inscribed meaning of disability in the best of times. I now wonder (and worry) how the impact of this pandemic — and the disproportionate havoc it is wreaking on students so often ignored — will complicate this entrenched disregard even further.

Joseph R. Passi is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools. 


The Impacts of COVID-19 on Students with IEPs
By Faith Ann Douglas

The pandemic has changed special education services and learning for me. 

Having had an IEP (individualized education plan) since pre-K, I have learned with minimal support, but I’ve been able to communicate with my teacher daily. But during the pandemic it has been hard for many caseload teachers to guide online student learning. My caseload teacher has been extra helpful in providing suppport although it can be difficult not being in person to ask questions. 

Many of my classmates don’t seem to like to be on camera or talk, so many turn their video camera off or skip class. I have found that students and teachers find it difficult to adapt to people seeing and hearing through a computer screen. It is difficult if teachers don’t share their view, record their classes, or provide a YouTube taping. It can also be challenging if technology fails, asking questions and getting feedback is harder, and I just miss my peers. 

It has been a difficult process to even be able to feel comfortable sharing in a Zoom classroom with other students and new teachers. In elementary school I participated in social skills some at school, but now as a junior in high school I feel like I’ve lost most of my practical social skills due to the pandemic. It has been very challenging to learn how to communicate with my peers again. 

However, being an online special education student is less stressful in some ways because I don’t have to worry I’ll be infected with COVID-19 or struggle with wearing the mask for long periods of time. 

I’m grateful my school district had the technology and opportunity to allow me to shift my learning to online, but I’m still questioning what the pandemic will mean for my education and communication in the future.

Faith Ann Douglas is a student at Oxford High School in Mississippi.


Trying, Failing, and Trying Again
By Monise Seward

As a special education teacher, my daily instructional routines were established long before COVID-19 forced physical schools to close. Those routines were so reflexive that a pandemic forced me to actually think about what I did each and every day to meet students’ needs.

Transitioning to virtual teaching required me to take inventory of the things I did to help students. Then, I had to accept that almost all of those strategies and routines were rendered ineffective as of March 13, 2020. One of my favorite techniques was to stand outside the door, greeting students, as they entered the classroom. On their way into the classroom, I provided verbal instructions that mirrored those posted on our projector. Students had the opportunity to hear the instructions multiple times and see them in writing. This frequently used accommodation benefits all students in the classroom; however, it does not work well in the virtual setting. Students are still adjusting to logging in to classes at the correct time, navigating learning management systems platforms for several teachers, and the overall demands of online learning. 

Although I know the benefits of face-to-face instruction for students like mine, I am also aware of the risks for everyone if schools open before implementation of necessary safeguards. But how can I successfully replicate what I did in the face-to-face setting and implement it in a virtual setting? The honest answer: I cannot. Almost a year later and I have not been able to do what I do best. Despite the hours spent considering every strategy that worked in a traditional school setting and trying to adapt each of them, I keep coming up short. Sometimes I feel like a first-year teacher: trying, failing, and trying again. n

Monise Seward has more than 10 years of experience serving students with disabilities in some capacity. She is currently working as a special education teacher in metro Atlanta, teaching 6th-grade math and science.


Special Education Teachers of Color Collective
By Saili S. Kulkarni, Samuel Bland, and Monica Gonzalez

During March 2020, as the world began to shelter in place, we, a group of special education teachers and teacher educators of color (SETOC), came together to build critical affinity, decompress, and learn. Although we all live and work in the Bay Area, California, our identities as teachers of color (all of us) and disabled (some of us) position us as outsiders in our schools and institutions.  

 We originally planned to hold our discussion sessions together in person over dinner. When COVID-19 happened, however, we adjusted to having this space be virtual using Zoom. We met every two weeks from March until September and our topics ranged from accessibility and inclusion to racial battle fatigue. We met in two-hour sessions, starting with some music and a general check-in to see how everyone was doing, and then engaged in our discussion topic.  

Our critical affinity space gave us the needed support and healing to process our teaching experiences. 

 Creating a collective space for us to vent, process, and be heard is important to sustaining our ongoing work in special education and as teachers of color. Together we (Saili, Samuel, Monica, and fellow SETOC collective colleagues Ashley Highsmith, Joanna Gaeta, and Nicola Holdman) advocate for the need for more collective spaces where special education teachers of color can come together to process how our work is across disability, race, culture, and language, and how we can continue to support each other in sustaining and enacting changes in our classrooms.

Saili S. Kulkarni (pronounced Sigh-lee; Cool-cur-knee) is a teacher educator at San José State University in the Department of Special Education and a former special education teacher in Oakland. Samuel Bland is a special education teacher in San Jose and has held several positions in education over the last 10 years. Monica Gonzalez has a master’s in special education from San José State University. She has nine years of experience in special education and is currently an education specialist intern in the East Bay Area. 


When Learning Is Good and Bad at the Same Time
By Justice McDonald

During the pandemic, online school has been good and bad at the same time.

The reason that it is good is because we don’t have to get up so early and we don’t really wear a lot of clothes like a jacket or anything that is hot on you. Also, we don’t have to write on paper and this is good because sometimes our hands get tired. Another thing that is good about online school is that we get a 15-minute break after each class, and some of the things that we do in those 15 minutes are stretch or get a snack.

The reason why it is bad is because sometimes we have bad internet or the computer will shut down on us. We never get to go on school trips because of the pandemic. Also we don’t really see our friends a lot and we can’t play with them outside. Another thing that is bad about online school is that some kids bully people online like they type mean things about you in the chat and some teachers do nothing about it. Another reason why online school is hard is because some people turn off their camera and I really want to see their faces and how they look and it really stinks that I can’t always see them.

l hope to go back to school because l get more help on my work and understand my work more. Something that l miss about in-person school is that l can see my friends and have a regular lunch where you can talk to your friends and have fun outside.

Justice McDonald is a 5th-grade student who lives in Boston. He was born in Washington D.C., but was raised in New York City. What he wants to be when he grows up is a basketball player and a physical therapist. He loves to travel and one of the places he loves the most is Phuket, Thailand.


Administrative Violence and the Repetition of Resistance
By Carson Chodos

This fight has been fought before. For decades, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act have mandated that all students with disabilities are legally entitled to free specialized services and supports to access an appropriate public education. These foundational laws passed in spite of years of objections about costs and complaints that disability activists were interfering with the educations of neurotypical peers. Those spurious objections were ultimately overcome. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the special education conversation is now eerily reminiscent of those decades-old debates. The manufactured scarcity around the COVID-19 pandemic is yet another discursive and material attempt to deny the disabled students in my classes a meaningful public education.  

When the New York City hybrid learning plan went into effect, my integrated public school was “short” 32 special education teachers. All my students were given one teacher instead of two, and their Individualized Education Programs had an addendum — a “Program Adaptation Document” — that “describes the staffing model that will be used until full staffing is in place.” This infuriating attempt to administrate the denial of services through procedural documentation felt like a bureaucratic nightmare.  

In response, I filed a repetitive “Special Education Grievance” through the union portal.  The union contacted the superintendent who insisted the principal write a daily survey of the stagnant, and intentionally designed, staffing shortage. The principal wrote a letter of assurance that the school is “looking for more staff to fill the vacancies due to the blended learning program.” This regulative resistance is repeated each week to this day. But most of my students still don’t have consistent co-teachers. Moving from “Blended” to “All Remote” and back again in practice means nothing structurally or financially has changed for my students with disabilities. 

I insist on grieving and naming administrative violence as city press releases tout resounding success.

Carson Chodos is a middle school special education teacher, mama, abolitionist, and proud MORE-UFT member in Brooklyn.


Zero Restraints: Why Remote Learning Works for Our Family
By Sophia Johansson

The most difficult part of parenting one of our children has been signing a piece of paper consenting to restraint in school.

Our kitchen first became a classroom five years ago when he left school after an autumn of bruises and disappointment. His teachers were ill-equipped to support him, so it fell to everyone else. Mostly me. We spent nine months out of school that year and exhausted the tutor that the district sent to the house. 

When our son returned to school, it was to another group of teachers who seemed to also become overwhelmed by his support needs. No bruises this time, but certainly seclusion and misdiagnoses. He became sad and withdrawn.

Around this time, he participated in evaluations that showed he demonstrated more skills and competency in our home than anywhere else. From a diagnostic perspective, he has a unique learning profile that includes a developmental disability and a lot of challenges with emotional regulation, with no significant cognitive impairment. And at home, he thrives.

I’ve been grateful for remote education during the pandemic and am glad we chose that option. We finally have the education program we want: The work is relevant, our son manages his own engagement (sometimes poorly), he’s reading a ton more than usual, and he’s constantly problem-solving with his sister. I know this works for us largely because we are in a well-resourced district with access to high-quality virtual instruction and can cover all our bills (even though we live paycheck to paycheck). Oddly, it seems we’ve finally gotten a strengths-based curriculum with a lot of opportunities for real-life learning. He is getting the educational benefits of specialized instruction in the most integrated and natural setting possible. 

One way to summarize his experience is with a big fat “0.” Zero restraints since the pandemic began.

Sophia Johansson is a parent of three children, two of whom receive special education services, and is passionate about thinking outside of the box for person-centered, spirit-fulfilling solutions.