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Pandemic widens learning gaps for special needs students

Families seek extra resources to help their children catch up


A para-professional helps an autistic student attend virtual class from home in Wharton, N.J. Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig (file)

Pandemic widens learning gaps for special needs students

When her daughters’ private Christian school transitioned to remote education in spring 2020, Pat Maetzold and her husband, Hugh, like many parents, began juggling their girls’ educational needs at their home in White Bear Lake, Minn. The school provided a packet of work and a weekly Zoom meeting for Bethany, 11, and Lily, 9, both of whom have Down syndrome.

Many of the girls’ therapy appointments were either canceled or also moved online. Bethany and Lily needed to be in different rooms for their virtual classes and appointments, but Maetzold couldn’t monitor them both at the same time. The girls are “very tech-savvy,” Maetzold said, and they often turned off their Zoom meetings or started watching a movie. Bethany struggled to interact with her peers online, and Maetzold said the Zoom meetings didn’t work at all for Lily.

“Education decisions are difficult anyways for families impacted by disabilities,” Maetzold said. “You can’t just anticipate that your kids are going to go to school and just jump right into a classroom.” In a pandemic, those decisions are only trickier. “You do feel isolated anyways. And a pandemic just adds to that sense of isolation,” she said.

Many students struggled with remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, but special education students often faced extra challenges. A New York comptroller’s report released earlier this month found that nearly half of New York City students with an IEP, or individualized education program, did not receive all of the services mandated in their IEP, and some received none. In April, a nationwide survey of teachers of special education students found two-thirds of them said they were “less able” to adequately provide all of their students’ mandated IEP services while teaching virtually.

In New Jersey, policy director Peg Kinsell of the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network said virtual education worked well for some students but not as well for others, including students who needed support for behavior struggles or relied on lip-reading in communication. “We have not even begun to address the impact of the isolation over this last year on those families,” Kinsell said.

Many of the daily strategies special educators rely on such as redirection or one-on-one conversation just don’t work well virtually. Kinsell added that many children suffered when in-person therapy appointments moved online: “I have not heard from one parent that thought that went well.”

Some families in New Jersey are turning to compensatory education, requesting make-up therapy appointments through the school district for sessions that were listed in the child’s IEP but not received during virtual instruction. In June, New Jersey passed a law adding one year of educational services to special education students who would have aged out of the school system in 2020-2023.

In the fall of 2020, 11-year-old Bethany went back to school part-time—Lily is currently homeschooled—and the Maetzolds were matched with two nursing students in a Joni and Friends internship program. For three hours a week, the interns provided social interaction and skills practice for both girls and sometimes helped with Bethany’s handwriting assignments. They sang together, read, played outside, and always had a plan with a Bible story or lesson.

Kimi Archer, senior manager of Joni and Friends Internships, said the organization put together the internship program in three weeks to match families in need of respite and nursing students looking for a pediatric in-person internship. Starting in fall 2020, about 30 nursing students at University of Northwestern-St. Paul were matched each semester in pairs or small groups with a family with a child with disabilities. Archer said interns often help children who are studying virtually with homework or with logging on to their school assignments.

Archer said they hope to expand the program around the country and are planning to start an Indiana chapter in January. A potential program in Texas is also in the works.

This year, Bethany is attending school five days a week for the first time, and last week the family met their interns for this semester. Maetzold said she and her husband are proud of how their girls are bouncing back from pandemic isolation, adding that Lily had used sign language to ask to go to a friend’s house that morning. “They are incredible kids,” she said. “Even with the challenges of the pandemic, it is still an honor for my husband and I to raise these two beautiful girls.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and an intern with WORLD Digital.

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