Coronavirus: Special education at home could set some kids ‘way back’

Special education can be challenging for schools and families in normal times, but now teachers and therapists are delivering services online, parents are taking on heavier roles, and schools are trying to understand legally what’s required.

Federal and state officials are advising schools and parents to make “a good-faith effort” toward serving students with disabilities during coronavirus-forced school closures — rather than obsessing about normal legal rules that might be impossible to meet at the moment.

About 237,000 students in Ohio’s public school districts — about 15 percent — have been identified as having a disability, according to state data.

But even a “good-faith effort” at building a system that didn’t exist five weeks ago is quite a lift.

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“Olivia has Down syndrome,” Bellbrook mom Jenny Lake said of her daughter who’s in kindergarten. “She works with six teachers — a typical classroom teacher, an intervention specialist, a speech/language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist and an adaptive PE teacher. … So I’ve just recently become all six of those people.”

Experts say special education is decidedly not a one-size-fits-all issue, ranging from students who have basic academic learning disabilities, to students with physical and behavioral disorders, to multiple-disabled students with major medical issues.

Consistency problems

Attorney Robyn Traywick of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality represents families in special education disputes. The wide variety of cases leads to inconsistencies, she said. A teenager with a learning disability might be able to participate in an online group lesson but an active 5-year-old with autism might be less likely to focus on a computer-based lesson of much duration.

“I have some kids where the parent has yet to receive any communication from the school,” Traywick said last week. “I have others who are in their second or third week of occupational and speech therapy virtually. How is (the state) going to monitor this situation for equity? Right now, even in the same school district, it can be a huge difference from one teacher to another teacher.”

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The half-dozen local school districts the Dayton Daily News questioned all said they’re continuing special education services. Trotwood said meetings on students’ Individualized education programs (IEPs) continue online, and Mad River said students are getting tele-therapy sessions. Centerville said teachers are incorporating household objects into therapies to help students practice a range of skills.

But educators also acknowledged struggles. Miamisburg Director of Student Services Katy Lucas said services “are going as well as can be expected,” but inherent hurdles exist.

“Most services that are provided in an individual education plan would be difficult to provide through a distance-learning format,” Lucas said. “Services by their very nature require real-time interaction between the professional and the student so that feedback and correction can occur at the exact moment it is needed.”

Traywick said the reality of the situation is, “there are kids who are going to be set way back by this.”

Parent involvement

Mad River Schools Special Education Supervisor Jack Stephens said the burden of online or at-home special education has overwhelmed many families, and he encouraged them to call or email school officials for help.

The specialized instruction required is very different from helping a third-grader with a typical math or language arts assignment, Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio, said. It is “extremely difficult,” she said, for parents without training and experience.

Lake is helping her daughter Olivia, but the Bellbrook stay-at-home mom also has a third-grader, toddler twins, and is pregnant. Bellbrook schools are making that good-faith effort, she said, but it’s challenging and requires a lot of communication.

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“On day two, I cried and said I can’t do this,” she said. “What I’ve decided to focus on for all of my children is their mental health and their growth in general. For Olivia, she might fall behind a little academically, but we have seen so much growth already with her life skills, her participation in the family … seeing her really bloom into this more independent, responsible child is just wonderful.”

Bellbrook schools initiated contact immediately about the closures, Lake said, and things were a little bumpy early but have gotten better. She said therapists and teachers are willing to do Zoom or Google Meet video chats with the kids, and Olivia has received services from all teachers or therapists at different levels.

Occupational therapy involved a video with fine-motor skill activities including finger strengthening. The speech therapist provided printable books with valuable activities. But Lake said a group physical therapy session on Google Meet with several people talking “was overwhelming and overstimulating” for Olivia. All of those activities required Lake in a very hands-on role.

Older students

Finding what works takes some time, and that has also been the case for April Turner, whose adopted teenage sons Darrion and Demetrious get special education services from Dayton Public Schools.

She has been in contact with their special education teachers since the shutdown began, and they sent home packets of work for the boys to do. But the more specific services — speech therapy, behavioral therapy and reading help via twice-weekly calls from a classroom aide — only began this week, Turner said, a month after the shutdown began.

As a school counselor in another district, Turner said it’s hard to manage her boys’ education while doing her own job from home.

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“I try to have them get up at a certain time, do breakfast and then work on something,” Turner said. “Try to make sure they get on Google Classroom to do their lesson, or get on the Google Meet with the teacher or therapist at a certain time. And in the midst of that, I have my own meetings and webinars and office hours, as I interact with my own students, too.”

Students with disabilities often need more assistance and more breaks, Turner said, and she tries to make sure they get outside a bit, too.

“This is a whole lot to do,” she said.

Turner said she appreciates DPS’ efforts, from teachers calling to charging stations to food delivery.

She added that her sons are not used to the amount of computer/technology use that’s required right now. She said academic assignments and workloads might need to be differentiated based both on students’ capabilities and their support at home.

Dayton Public Schools did not respond to the newspaper’s questions about special education services.

Online access, technology

All the details of schools’ online efforts only matter if families can access those resources, Traywick said.

“I have a significant number of clients who do not have internet access or a (device),” she said. “So when you’re talking about virtual learning, we’ve already bypassed many of my parents.”

That’s been an issue for many Miamisburg school families, Lucas said, and internet access concerns were the reason Mad River schools are doing their at-home education via paper packets.

Traywick said some families have taken advantage of Chromebook or hot-spot offers from schools or others. But some of her clients are not tech savvy enough to do so. There have been some positives — some online small group therapies are going well, and some therapists can educate a parent via video on how to better help their child.

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Some families have individual technical issues. Karol Hendley, whose son has multiple disabilities, said they have not been able to resolve an email problem with Bellbrook High School.

Hendley said her son can get to some school work on Google classroom but was told by a speech therapist that his email account was restricted and he was unable to receive e-mails or notifications.

Betsy Chadd, director of curriculum for Bellbrook schools, said Thursday that teachers are communicating with the student, but the district will reach out to “close the communication gap.”

Schools can take individual steps to help special education students, said Hildebrant of Disability Rights Ohio. That could include providing online access with captioning for a student with a hearing impairment or screen reader software for visually impaired students.

But she said many special education issues are a struggle even in a normal classroom setting.

“Say you have a child whose disability is ADHD,” Hildebrant said. “That child has a difficult time focusing, staying on task, completing work, even when there’s a trained teacher and a support adult there. Imagine that child trying to access services at home.”

Where to go from here?

Leaders and experts are focusing on that good-faith effort to provide services to students with disabilities.

Traywick said her definition would be the school reaching out to the parent and having a conversation about what the parent is able to do. Then together, developing a game plan on how to provide educational services “to the best ability of the school and the parent.”

That’s crucial now, Hildebrand said, especially for older students at risk of dropping out.

“Any time you take a child away from the curriculum, they get farther and farther behind. There comes a point where it’s too stressful for the child to continue because they’re so far behind. Absolutely there’s a danger that this event is going to increase the dropout rate.”

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But while Traywick urges parents to collaborate, she said they should not formally waive any services.

“A free appropriate public education is a federal right,” she said. “It can’t be waived except by Congress. Just because kids are not in school doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to the services on their IEP.”

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Education said, a decision will have to be made about “compensatory services” to make up for what students missed. That could be a “monumental task” for schools in the fall, Lucas said.

There has been some talk that schools will receive a federal waiver and not have to give those services. Traywick, Lake and others said that would be unfair to students who need that help.

“I am totally against the waivers because you’re taking away our children’s right to a free appropriate public education,” Lake said. “But I am more than willing to work with the schools to compromise, to find a solution that’s going to meet my child’s needs.”

Special education students

There are 6.96 million children ages 3 to 21 served under the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These are the most common types of disability.

33.6% — specific learning disability

19.5% — speech/language impairment

14.4% — health/medical impairment

10.2% — autism

6.6% — developmental delay

6.3% — intellectual disability

5.1% — emotional disturbance

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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