This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on August 10, 2020 by Hallie Golden.
For one week in March, Patty Leitz watched her 7-year-old son, Michael, who has been diagnosed with severe autism and is nonverbal, not follow her directions or even respond when she’d try to teach him at home.
Then everything changed. Michael’s special education teacher started sending her not only a video greeting for Michael and lesson plans and timing for everything every day, but also a five- to six-minute video for Ms. Leitz. In it, the teacher walked her through exactly how to teach her son.
“As soon as I came along and imitated the teacher and used the exact words that the teacher uses, all of a sudden he’s complying and doing everything immediately,” says the Columbus, Ohio, mother.
The daily lessons for both student and parent meant that Michael was keeping up with his skills. But they also empowered his mother, helping her realize that she can be an effective part of his education.
“To be able to sit there and watch my kid count money, knew a quarter is 25 cents, that he knew how to tell time, it was amazing,” she says. Families and educators of the estimated 7 million special education students in the United States faced a myriad of challenges in the spring, as well as some out-of-the-box successes, after the coronavirus forced many to suddenly navigate remote learning. Heading into the fall with a majority of the nation’s largest school districts planning to start the year online-only, parents and teachers again face the task of managing learning. This time around, though, adults won’t be starting from scratch, but building off of the long list of lessons learned in the spring. Among them: Collaboration is key.
“This is where the parent is critical,” says Sean Smith, special education professor at the University of Kansas, who says the crucial role of guardians, particularly at the elementary level, was a surprise for some in the spring. “Part of the job of the teacher is to actually empower and interact and facilitate with the parent or the adult.”
Already districts, often asked about how they are planning to help their special education population, are prioritizing solutions and training. Some schools have explored offering evening or weekend support, in order to better accommodate families where parents work full time, says Professor Smith. The idea of having special education students start in person has also been suggested, with some parents petitioning for it, and some districts planning to give students priority access to buses to get them to on-site instruction. Some students already have been attending summer school.
Special education in the U.S. is based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which requires that districts provide individualized, appropriate, and free education for children with disabilities. It includes specifications about creating each student’s individualized education program, or IEP, which details annual goals and service needs. In addition to academic instruction, some students require physical and occupational therapy, all of which has often been difficult to provide during the pandemic and has resulted in lawsuits by parents. The Department of Education, while encouraging flexibility, has generally not allowed waivers for IEP rules and has been firm in its message to schools: Find a way.
Lisa Thomas, associate director at the American Federation of Teachers, a union, says after the switch to remote learning in the spring, she noticed teachers and specialists, including occupational and physical therapists, working more collaboratively with each other and parents in order to adapt to the new reality.
“This pandemic forced a level of collaboration that they typically just didn’t have the opportunity to do in a regular school day,” she says. In her own family, says Ms. Thomas, she saw a Maryland district develop a remote learning service plan as a supplement to her daughter’s IEP. With the teacher, physical therapist, occupational therapist, and other specialists all working together, they conducted an audit of her daughter’s services and figured out how all but seven hours of her 32-hour IEP could be done remotely.
Even so, working together will likely mean frequent reevaluation of what’s working and what isn’t. In March, when Chris and Jill Reffett helped their 9-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, participate in a Zoom social hour set up by her teacher, it was clear almost immediately it wasn’t going to work for her. The sessions were meant to give the students in the second grade classroom in Lawrence, Kansas, a chance to be around each other as they did an art project or some other type of activity together.
“She couldn’t get that they could actually see her on the other side. And to her it was noisy, it was uncontrolled,” says Ms. Reffett. “It made me a little bonkers. So for her, with ADHD, it was too much.”
Mr. Reffett says they ended up only having their daughter take part a few times, before skipping the social sessions altogether.
Julie Shepard and her husband in Spokane, Washington, had a similar experience with their 7-year-old son, Demetri, who has been diagnosed with autism and is legally blind.
For two months in the spring, Ms. Shepard managed to carve out time for his general education and special education lessons, as well as his more specialized services, including vision therapies. But the tablet he was using was too small for him to see clearly, and Demetri, who typically loves school, was becoming increasingly frustrated and angry trying to learn remotely. In May, she realized that this wasn’t working for her or her son: “It’s full time, and I can’t do my job and do his teaching full time,” she says. They temporarily switched to just focusing on general education lessons and attending only one digital therapy appointment a week. The change improved his mood and allowed Ms. Shepard to keep up with everything, but his instructors told her he is falling behind.
This fall, overcoming situations like those will occupy special education teachers, who are already gleaning insights from the spring. Kareem Neal teaches 15 high school students in a self-contained special education classroom in Phoenix. In the spring, he started holding virtual class meetings every Monday with students and their families, and once a day one-on-one virtual lessons with each of his pupils. The result, he says, was a lot more communication and a stronger relationship with each family. He also says he has a better understanding of his students from observing them at home, pointing to one in particular as an example.
“I think it was really a telling thing to me to say, ‘Wow, he is in my classroom getting all the attention he can because he may go home and not get much,’” says Mr. Neal. For some students, though, being at home may offer fewer distractions than a busy classroom, says Denise Stile Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national organization that helps to protect the rights of students with disabilities. A child may also thrive off of virtual sessions in which they are the central focus of their teacher’s attention, she adds. For her own 7-year-old grandchild, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome, she says simply being out of his special education classroom and among his typically developing siblings at home helped him: “He’s been saying a lot more words spontaneously because of that and really imitating what they’re doing all day long.”
Overall, she says she has mixed feelings about the fall. “[I'm hopeful] that we all can take what we’ve learned from this process into the new school year. But we also are concerned because of the unknowns. We don’t know how long this is all going to last. We don’t know what the continued effect is going to be for some students or whether they’ll receive the services that they need. And that’s worrisome."