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Creating Awareness for the Special Needs Community During COVID-19

My son, Langston.


“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats

This quote resonates deeply with me, as I reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted my life as an expatriate educator in China. As my family enjoyed time together during the Lunar New Year holiday, my school alerted us of a resumption date change from February 3rd to February 17th as the country went on lockdown. My school expected staff to still return by February 3rd, with those of us making the check in on February 3rd receiving a bonus. More surprisingly, our school would implement online learning! To provide context, my school was a low-tech school by design. There was no 1:1 tech program, and there was no tech coach or integrator. We were starting from zero with the task to make a way out of no way. Now nine weeks into online learning and with no end in sight, allow me to share the fire lit within me.

February 3, 2020: Point of Check-In.
February 3, 2020: Point of Check-In.

Creating Awareness

In the first week of online learning, I was surprised and humbled by the selfless sharing of resources from our Chinese international school neighbors near and far. As the weeks progressed, so did the magnitude of shared resources. There were learning platforms recommended, apps suggested, and instructional strategies championed. Ed-tech companies quickly jumped on the bandwagon providing free services to schools and individuals impacted by COVID-19. The outpouring of resources and support was heartwarming.

However, one perspective I immediately noticed missing from the conversation were voices advocating for the needs and experiences of individuals with disabilities and special learning needs. I was a special educator in the United States before transitioning to international education, and I have a passion for serving students whose differences are a gift. I also have a rambunctious ten-year-old with 1p36 Deletion Syndrome who inspired my journey into special education to be a better advocate from him and others. Noticing the void in information sharing regarding the special learning needs community, I took it upon myself to be that voice and to add awareness from our community to the conversations quickly emerging regarding online learning.

Receiving a NAT before being cleared from quarantine. The results were negative!
Receiving a NAT before being cleared from quarantine. The results were negative!

Supporting Teachers, Students, and Parents

One to three hours: This is the hours per day parents of students with disabilities spend supporting their students in full-time virtual learning (Burdette & Greer, 2014). This number reveals how active a role parents of students with disabilities and special learning needs play in their child’s online learning. I thought it imperative to share this reality with the wider international community. To this end, I created infographics to spread awareness. One such infographic focused on accessibility features shared ten tips for creating accessible course content while another had a teacher checklist for responding to students with special needs during online learning. During my research for these infographics, it occurred to me that to support students with disabilities and special learning needs in online learning, educators need to reach parents first. Effective online learning that helps students with disabilities and special learning needs must address parent education to ensure that parents possess skills necessary (including instructional methods) to take the primary role in supporting their children’s learning in an online environment (Smith, Burdette, Cheatham, & Harvey, 2016). Teachers must receive professional development to equip them to handle the challenges posed by a crisis of this scope including frequent and effective parent communication, and the ability to identify struggling students and deliver specific strategies (National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, 2010).

Hours Spent Supporting Students with Disabilities in Virtual Settings.
Hours Spent Supporting Students with Disabilities in Virtual Settings.

Developing Advocacy Skills

A one-size-fits-all approach to online learning is not practical. We have no evidence that practices in traditional settings automatically transfer to online environments (Tindle, 2017). So how do we ensure that students’ education remains appropriate? We let students take the lead in advocating for their needs in the online environment and supporting them with inclusive instructional strategies. One of my roles over the last eight weeks as middle school dean has been facilitating students in uncovering themselves as learners by determining what works for them and what challenges need refining. Providing students the tools to confidently advocate for their needs online will generate benefits in the classroom when school resumes. A bright spot I think will emerge from this uniting experience is an increase in engagement and learning across the board, not only for students but their families. A wonderful example is the positive engagement my husband, a high school Chemistry teacher, and I had with a couple of panicked 6th-grade students on the weekend. A student reached out to me as he was unable to reach his teacher promptly due to a difference in time. He had a question about a Chemistry project due very soon. After inviting a peer with similar concerns into the Microsoft Teams group chat, my husband and I were able to engage the students with content knowledge and scaffolding support of the task in a manner that would have been unlikely before online learning. Not only that, the students were engaged with members of our learning community irrespective of job description or divisional level. Likewise, the massive amount of pedagogical information and quality teaching shared around the world has engaged parents and given an unprecedented peek into our classrooms that cannot be unseen.

The unspoken expectations assumed by parents responsible for providing vital academic support.

Moving Forward

I could not have predicted the magnitude of this viral outbreak. Through all the uncertainty, isolation, and grief, a fire has been lit within me to connect. I choose to connect by spreading awareness of the reality of families of students with disabilities and special learning needs during this unprecedented global movement to online learning. My experience of living, learning, and teaching during this pandemic has forever altered my practice. I am 100% committed to creating instructional content that is accessible to all and incorporates universal designs for learning to connect all individuals within our learning community. I have an increased sensitivity to anticipate the needs of the parents and primary caregivers of the students I serve that I have not experienced since I worked in early childhood education. Moving forward, I hope to see more international schools take intentional steps to implement robust parent and primary caregiver education programs to equip parents with the necessary skills to be competent educational parents. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed parents who feel woefully unprepared to support their students. An incredible upside to this global tragedy is the renewed opportunity for schools to connect with families. Many parents are experiencing an increased understanding of their child’s learning which allows for parents’ expertise regarding their children’s strengths and challenges to be further built upon and addressed in collaboration with their child’s teacher (Smith et al., 2016). How will we make the most of this opportunity?

An example schedule I created from an old IEP with working parents in mind.
An example schedule I created from an old IEP with working parents in mind.

I encourage educators to seize this moment to remove the doors of the classroom. A class website or weekly newsletter are great ways to extend the invitations into our classrooms we have given parents during this pandemic. I will continue to provide parents with a weekly summary of their child’s learning, a practice I have put into motion during online learning. When my campus reopens, and we can gather once again, I hope to work alongside my administrators in offering support reimagined for our parents. My goal is to provide parents with hands-on workshops to equip them with technical skills such as navigating Microsoft Teams and the Read & Write add-on from Text Help. Also, I plan to provide the training on instructional strategies such as scaffolding and strategies for promoting time management and study habit developments that are proving key to effective online learning. Those tasked with providing support to students now have an opportunity to develop inclusive supports for parents who are proving to be eager collaborators. Imagine the positives that will emerge once parents are equipped to accept the baton in this global relay race to provide quality education in the time of a pandemic. I am excited to do my part to move education for all forward.

Burdette, P., & Greer, D. (2014). Online Learning and Students with Disabilities: Parent Perspectives.

Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 13(2), 68-88. Retrieved from

National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. (2010). Teacher Checklist for Responding to Students with Special Needs during Online Learning. Vienna: North American Council for Online Learning. Retrieved from

Smith, S. J., Burdette, P. J., Cheatham, G. A., & Harvey, S. P. (2016). Parental Role and Support for Online Learning of Students with Disabilities: A Paradigm Shift. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 29(2), 101-112.

Tindle, K. E. (2017). Online Learning for Students with Disabilities: Considerations for LEA Policies, Practices, and Procedures. Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.

Dominique Blue has over six years hanging tough with zany middle schoolers and is the Middle School Dean at BASIS International School Guangzhou, China. Nowadays, you’ll find her sharing her love of Southern cooking and tinkering around with VR/AR to support students with special learning needs. Feel free to talk shop and solutions by reaching out on social media.

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