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A Baltimore County teacher wouldn’t let the pandemic shut down lessons for her students with disabilities

Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaching a summer school program to her third throughfifth grade students.
Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaching a summer school program to her third throughfifth grade students. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Teacher Allison Engel and the rest of the staff at Ridge Ruxton School in Towson had just one day to pull off the impossible and figure out how to educate their students with disabilities over a computer screen.

On Thursday, March 12, Maryland schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on orders of Gov. Larry Hogan. Instruction, state teachers were told, would have to take place via remote instruction.

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That was a significant challenge for a typical classroom. But in special education classrooms, the obstacles seemed nearly insurmountable.

Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaching a summer school program to her third through fifth grade students.
Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaching a summer school program to her third through fifth grade students. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

How, Engel wondered, could she show a child how to hold a spoon without cupping her own hand behind that child’s elbow? How could she explain the pandemic to a little girl with learning disabilities who waited daily for a school bus that never arrived? How could Engel teach colors to a little boy who was unable to sit in a chair unassisted, let alone operate a computer?

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“Students with special needs sometimes show regression in their skills,” Engel said. “Regression can occur when they’re out of the classroom for a weekend, let alone for weeks or months. It was very scary to think that we’d have to do all of our teaching over a computer screen.”

But she knew that Ridge Ruxton’s teachers, staff and parents would figure it out together. Really, they had no choice. Josie and Oscar and John and the school’s 124 other pupils were counting on them.

“This is one of the most amazing communities I’ve ever been part of,” said Engel, who has taught at Ridge Ruxton for 25 years. “Everyone came together to build a plan from the ground up. We were in constant contact through phone calls, emails and text messages. I have never met a more dedicated group of individuals.”

Principal Missy Beltran figured out how to get money to her teachers to pay for supplies that could be delivered to students’ homes. Student development specialists Valerie Mount and Justine Branaman scrambled to design a curriculum. Instructional assistant Shakira Rios Colon, sheltering in Puerto Rico with her family, filmed educational videos from the beach.

And Engel drew on her sense of humor and the relaxed charm she’s perfected during three decades of teaching. She made it all seem like a game, and she cajoled her pupils into playing with her. (Classes continued through July 31 for students qualifying for an extended school year.)

Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaches a summer school math class to her third through fifth grade students.
Allison Engel, a teacher at Ridge Ruxton School, is teaches a summer school math class to her third through fifth grade students. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“Allison is very creative and hands-on,” Beltran said. “She’s always planning new ways to reach her students. She really teaches from the heart.”

The staff at Ridge Ruxton can’t wait for their school to reopen in 2021. But despite the obstacles, the students are continuing to learn. Every day, progress is made. And that’s an immense relief.

“Recently, we’ve been talking about things we would see on a camping trip,” Engel said.

“I asked the students to bring a picture or stuffed animal of a bug. One boy showed us a drawing he’d made of a spider. He was so proud. When I saw his smile, I thought, ‘OK‘ ”

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