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Special Needs Students Return To School, Face New Challenges

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
While most schools in Allegheny County start the new school year online, teachers are trying to avoid “one size fits all” plans for all students with disabilities. ";s:

On today's program: Online schooling poses new challenges for students enrolled in special education courses; new learning environments put teachers under stress and impact their mental health; some parents are turning to learning hubs for childcare and help with school work; and for Good Question, Kid! a teacher answers students’ science questions. 

Teachers say they’re working to ensure special needs students don’t get left behind during the pandemic
(00:00 — 14:45)

There are 21,000 students in Allegheny County with disabilities. During the pandemic, some of these students are learning in the classroom, others at home, and some go back and forth between the two. The technology might prove to be a challenge for some special needs students who benefit from in-person relationships and instruction.

“I think it is important for a lot of them to be there; I think a lot of our students need some hands-on activities that are very difficult for them over Zoom or virtually,” says Mikayla Nolfi, a secondary learning support teacher atSunrise School, one of Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s three special education schools.

Individualized education plans and support from teachers and administrators are a cornerstone of special education services, says Brian Welles, Assistant Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for theAllegheny Intermediate Unit. To ensure that students don’t get left behind or suffer learning loss, he says schools and teachers should avoid “one size fits all” plans for students with disabilities.

Continued support from the state and school districts is critical to ensuring that students are where they should be academically at the end of the school year, says Maria Bennis, a hearing support teacher at Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

“Funding needs to continue from the state so that we have the ability to purchase the things that those students need in terms of equipment in order to remain safe, but also to be able to have access to all the communication that’s happening around them on a daily basis,” she says. 

Teachers’ mental well-being could impact student learning, says learning environment specialist
(14:46 — 20:47)

Remote learning during the pandemic has put students and parents under stress as they try to navigate new ways of learning. Some teachers are also struggling to keep up as they’ve had to quickly adapt to a new teaching environment while still, in some cases, being expected to meet testing benchmarks and virtually monitor students. This could leave teachers burned out, stressed and unable to teach effectively.


“They need time to master some of the things that they’re asked to teach,” says Doreen Allen, a learning environment specialist withPittsburgh Public Schools. Instructors’ mental well-being is just as critical to learning as students’ mental well-being, she tells The Confluence.

“Like you would do on an airplane, in order to help people, you’ve got to put the oxygen on yourself. You have to take care of yourself so that we can take care of our students and our families,” Allen says. 

Learning hubs serve as a temporary solution for help with online learning
(20:48 — 25:24)

With most school districts teaching students remotely either full or part time, there’s a huge need for childcare for school-age children—something most of the country wasn’t equipped for before the pandemic.


90.5 WESA’sSarah Schneider spoke with administrators at the Millvale Boys and Girls Club, where students now gather every day for their online education

How do eyes work?
(25:25 — 29:27)

 The Confluence has been asking families for questions—those very good questions that a kiddo in your life might have that leaves you scratching your head.


As part of 90.5 WESA’sGood Question, Kid! series, Edwina Kinchington, a teacher at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, explains why heat waves are visible on hot days, and how eyes work. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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