Special education left behind
Students with disabilities face extra hurdles during pandemic school
When Sarah Nightingale’s fellow classmates made walking sticks for their seventh grade art class, they wrote paragraphs explaining their designs. But Sarah’s teacher had her record a video explanation instead. Sarah has dyslexia and dysgraphia, reading and writing disorders. When her public school combined in-person and remote instruction this year, teachers assigned extra reading and writing for remote instruction days, and Sarah struggled to keep up in the fall. Her father has helped her, and her teachers have made adjustments to make things easier, but Sarah still had to accept some B’s and C’s.
Roughly 7.1 million U.S. public school students have a disability of some kind. Federal law requires public schools to accommodate them, but the COVID-19 pandemic upended many strategies teachers rely upon. Services have improved since last March, but online school still requires extra investment from parents with special needs kids. Safety requirements have limited support for these students even when they can be in-person.
Pandemic learning started poorly for most students with disabilities. Public schools create an individualized education program (IEP) to outline what services, such as tutoring or occupational therapy, a student with a disability is entitled to receive. Some districts paused classes altogether in March out of concern that online school couldn’t meet these requirements. In May, only 20 percent of parents of students with IEPs reported receiving full services. In October, The Seattle Times reported only one of the city’s public school students with disabilities was receiving in-person instruction. By January, the U.S. Department of Education had launched investigations into insufficient support in Indiana, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Fairfax County, Va.
Even when schools improve online instruction, virtual learning means more work for parents of special education students. In November, Sarah Nightingale’s father, Andy, rearranged his work schedule, taking Thursdays off to read homework questions to Sarah and write down her answers.
But parents can’t always make up for the difference. In Los Angeles County, where public schools have been online since March, Meliza Santiago spends school days sitting next to her 6-year-old son Jerome, who has autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Santiago said she’s not trained in how to help Jerome with academics. He can’t hold a pencil properly or trace letters. Teachers usually mute Jerome’s microphone to keep his vocalizations from distracting others, and without classroom interactions, his social skills like waiting for his turn have deteriorated. “As soon as I step out, he’s not listening,” Santiago said.
Some parents have turned to other in-person options. The Association of Christian Schools International found that, while overall enrollment at Christian schools dipped slightly this fall, schools that reopened with increased support for special education students saw 9.9 percent enrollment growth. In Connecticut, a few parents formed their own private school for their children with disabilities.
Many public schools have prioritized special needs kids for early returns to in-person learning, but safety rules still limit activities. Virginia high school special education teacher Genevieve Weaver said four of her six students have returned in-person. She helps them learn life skills like folding clothes, but health restrictions have canceled outings to grocery stores and the humane society. In rural Illinois, where Tami Ury teaches elementary special education, social distancing prevents small-group discussions. Usually students visit Ury’s classroom for extra help, then return to their primary classrooms. This year, since social distancing has reduced capacity in other classrooms, she has three students in her room all day and has to adjust her lessons for other students to avoid distracting them.
Ury, a Christian, said constant pandemic adjustments this year have made her feel less attuned to opportunities to share the gospel. “I just feel like I’m surviving each day,” Ury said, but added, “I’m here because God has called me to love these students.”
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