In this Voices From the Field piece, the National Center on Intensive Intervention (NCII) talks with Laura Hamby and Ann Jolly from the Exceptional Children department in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools about how they have addressed teaching and learning challenges related to COVID-19 restrictions. Laura and Ann share their early approaches and successes in ensuring that special educators and their students are supported during school closures.
NCII: What were your first steps in addressing the challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis?
Laura Hamby: For our department, it primarily started on the morning of March the 13th, when I met with Dr. White, the assistant superintendent for exceptional children (EC), and realized we had to talk about what remote learning instruction would look like for exceptional children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). Later that day, staff from our EC department came together to start planning. The situation kept evolving all day—as we were planning together, updates and questions kept coming in all day long.
Ann Jolly: Throughout the day on March 13, it became clear that things were changing in North Carolina and CMS regarding COVID-19 closures. EC teachers were seeking guidance and wondering what specially designed instruction would look like in a remote learning environment. We told them to take all their materials home and that we would figure it out that weekend; then, we immediately started building out recommendations for supplemental learning and how our teachers could maintain some stability around instruction for our EC students. The governor announced the next day that schools would be closed for the next few weeks. We worked through the weekend, talking both within our EC department and with staff from other academic departments in CMS.
It was important for us to find out what other CMS departments were doing so that we could make sure we were supporting teachers consistently in the transition to remote teaching and learning. We knew that general education staff were already working on making packets of hard-copy materials for general education students. As we moved from the school building, we worked with other departments to support teachers in moving content and lessons to the learning management system and provided resources for teachers. We developed a (frequently updated!) COVID-19 Remote Resource page for all district and departments’ updates, resources to continue strong instruction, and compliance guidance. We also started holding regular virtual department hours with EC teachers so they could feel connected and stay up-to-date.
NCII: What were your early successes in supporting teachers and families?
Laura Hamby: One success was that CMS launched an instructional hub with all of the resources, including those from our EC department, within a few days of school closings. The resources that our EC team put together were phenomenal; but, one thing that I have worried about is whether all families would be able to access these resources. We are working now to support everyone in using these resources.
Ann Jolly: It’s really important to me to know how teachers are feeling, especially now that our work has changed from in-person in school buildings to virtual. It’s easy to forget that the context is different for everybody—some of our teachers are ready to take on virtual learning, but some are overwhelmed. Some of our colleagues have family members who are getting sick or dying. We’ve been thinking about how we, as leaders and supporters, can make sure that we meet everyone where they are with respect.
It was inspiring to watch teachers transform over the weeks of transition. Many understandably were unsure about how to approach this new environment and had more questions than answers. As the weeks progressed, their confidence levels grew and they were sharing prerecorded lessons and resources with each other, even commenting, “I’ve got this!”
Our teachers are persistent and tenacious. Initially, many teachers expressed concern about not being able to reach all of their students, but now teachers are consistently connecting with all their students through texting, phone calls, and virtual instruction platforms. They’re not giving up. Our success is due to the tenacity and dedication that our teachers have to their students and families.
NCII: What supports have you been providing for teachers over the past several weeks?
Laura Hamby: Before COVID-19, we were at the very beginning stages of exploring supplemental learning through technology resources such as Zoom meetings or designing a course on Canvas. We’ve been encouraging teachers to use these tools, but now we have a better sense of the support teachers need to use these tools. For instance, we had a Canvas support person come to our virtual office hours to talk through the platform with our teachers.
We attend regular meetings with other departments (e.g., academics, English learners) so we stay abreast of their work. We also collaborate with other departments to better understand what collaboration and coteaching look like in a virtual environment. For instance, we just had a virtual town hall across CMS departments to gather teachers’ input on how they are collaborating virtually.
Ann Jolly: In the first two weeks of school closures, we were holding two hour-long virtual office hours every day, but we noticed many teachers would join these office-hour meetings just to listen in and not have specific questions. We realized that it was important to have a small group of engaged teachers who could help guide our work at the district level. We also wanted to give our teachers an opportunity to be leaders within the larger school community. We sent out an invitation, using Google Forms, to see who might be interested in being part of a teacher advisory group; we also reached out individually to some of our teachers who were particularly engaged during our office-hour Zoom meetings. We now have an advisory group of 10 EC teachers that meets with us monthly to share, brainstorm, and problem solve.
One of the first challenges we addressed with the EC teacher advisory group was how to help teachers get in touch with their students. We brought in experts from the Exceptional Children Assistance Center (ECAC) to help us think about what messages and outreach strategies work best for our families. ECAC was able to share family survey data, by grade level, on what they said they needed and wanted from teachers. Now, families that we used to have trouble connecting with are working collaboratively with our EC teachers to deliver instruction. Families are learning the strategies we use with their kids in school.
We have parents who reach out directly to our EC department, too. We had a parent who reached out to us about how to use Google Chrome with a student with disabilities; our discussion then evolved into a plan to share that information widely with other families. We collaborated with other departments to host our first EC department virtual family night to share features of Read and Write for Google Chrome with families, so parents would have a better understanding of how to support their children. At one point in the evening, 55 families were logged in! We are planning other virtual family nights to foster this engagement and support in remote learning.
Laura Hamby: We try to be active listeners and work collaboratively with our teachers and parents.
NCII: What are you thinking about for the future?
Ann Jolly: As our work has evolved over the past several weeks, we have transitioned from holding virtual office hours to an EC instructional help desk, including a new e-mail and request-for-support process to provide on-the-spot support and reliable resources or to just be a thought partner. We’re hoping to continue to build that out, because we’ve learned that quick and consistent answers to questions are important. Teachers have expressed some benefits of technology and other strategies learned during this time, and we are working to develop and consolidate evidence-based resources that can be used in a blended learning environment. If our students are rotating on and off face-to-face instruction, there will be questions about scheduling. We need to be intentional about our training to make sure all our teachers can access it.
Laura Hamby: When we go back to school in the fall, we’re going to have to figure out where our students are in their learning. North Carolina has required that we have a remote learning plan in place that specifically includes students with disabilities. We know that virtual education systems aren’t always designed well for kids with disabilities, so now we want to figure out what those inequities are and how we can address them.
NCII: Is there anything you’ve learned from these shifts in your work over the past several weeks?
Laura Hamby: We’ve learned that communication across departments and school staff is so important. We want to deliver a consistent message that is communicated in a timely manner.
Ann Jolly: Our outreach helped me to be a more active listener and collaborator. I continue to be engaged in social media so I can get a sense of what’s happening nationally. I stay abreast of resources from NCII, the Council for Exceptional Children, and Educating All Learners. The webinars from these and other organizations have helped us think more about our systems and how we can address some of the ongoing issues. I also try to commit an hour or two daily to learn what’s happening in other places and how we might move forward. We try to network with others because having someone to bounce your ideas off of makes a difference. We’re all learning as we go.