Special education at home proves a challenge for schools, parents

While school districts have implemented remote learning programs for its students, maintaining instruction for students with disabilities presents unique issues

By Leah Willingham of the Concord Monitor
via the Granite State News Collaborative

Being at school with a team of educators to support him gives Connor Marcotte, a 7-year-old with autism, the structure he needs to learn.

The classroom environment helps Katie Duran, 9, who has down syndrome, deepen her emotional ties with her peers.

Connor Against Wall

Penacook 7-year-old Connor Marcotte stands next to his answer for the ‘question of the day’ in his class at school during remote learning.

Coralee Brodeur Smart, 6, receives physical therapy for her cerebral palsy that relaxes her muscles and keeps her strong.

There’s a lot to gain from school, especially kids with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans and 504s.

While school districts have been working diligently across the state to implement remote learning programs for its students, maintaining instruction for students with disabilities presents unique challenges.

Educators have tried to find ways to transfer math, science and English work into a remote setting using virtual platforms. Services like physical therapy and occupational therapy, which involve one-on-one support, are more difficult to translate.

The system puts more pressure on parents to lead the charge in making sure their children are staying engaged and getting access to services.

“As a parent, I’m not trained in all of these areas,” Katie’s mom, Carrie Durant, said of physical, occupational and speech therapy services. “I don’t want to mess up. You find yourself thinking, ‘What are the long-term consequences if mom messes up and doesn’t do it right?’ ”

“I don’t want her to fall behind. She is already developmentally behind her peers, but I don’t want it to go even further and having to play catch up, and as a parent, I feel a huge responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Remote special education

Much of special education programming is based on individualized, in-person support and routine.

In-person support is now impossible, with a stay-at-home order being issued from the governor’s office.

Concord School District Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley said district officials are trying to create as much structure for families as they can.

Most of the students’ resources for remote learning are accessed online, through platforms like Google Classroom. Palley said both regular classroom teachers and other staff members, like paraeducators, that help students carry out their IEP, will have access to Google Classroom files.

Students who receive one-on-one support from teachers are still doing lessons using video conferencing, sometimes with a few other students at once. Palley said educators have made special efforts to be available to parents and students via phone and email to answer questions as they come up over the course of the day.

Occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists and physical therapists are still connecting with students. They are able to assign students exercises based on their needs.

In many cases, parents take the lead implementing those exercises at home. Parents of students with more severe disabilities that require complex assistance have struggled to know how to proceed.

“For students who have much more significant disabilities and need more physical support, that’s a piece that’s really difficult,” Palley said. “Students who had one-on-one assistance and direct therapies that were very hands-on, that’s obviously something that we are not doing right now.”

Independent learning

The amount of support a parent needs to offer kids at home depends on the age of the child, how significant their disability is and access to resources.

Students who already used technology independently in their day-to-day lives at school have found the transition to be smoother.

Abby Duffy, a sophomore at Concord High School, already depends on multiple forms of technology every day to help her access education when in school.

Duffy, who is blind, uses a laptop or iPad, which can speak aloud to her as she explores its settings in class. She also has a device called Braille Edge, which can be paired with a laptop or iPad and translates information on devices into braille for her to read.

She uses JAWS-screen reading, a Microsoft program that allows blind or visually impaired users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by Braille display.

Other parents, especially those of younger children who are working on building foundational skills, feel a mounting responsibility to ensure they don’t fall behind.

Math class is one area where Duffy usually receives the most support during the school day. She usually has a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) in class to help translate problems into braille as they are being written on the board by the teacher.

Now, Duffy is receiving that same support – just virtually. Duffy can’t read math equations using her screen reader, so when she and her TVI, Adrienne Shoemaker, meet on video chat, Shoemaker will read the assignment to her while Duffy writes it out in braille. Duffy will solve the problem, and Shoemaker will write her answers down in standard English. A photo of those answers will be sent to Duffy’s teacher.

“It’s kind of more convoluted, but it works,” Duffy said. “We’ve come up with our own system.”

One service that Duffy isn’t getting while learning at home is orientation and mobility training, which she usually receives one day a week after school. Usually, that training involves her and Shoemaker doing cane practice.

“Not everything can be done virtually when you’re dealing with special education,” said Abby’s mother, Penny Duffy. “I think we have to acknowledge that, this may fall into that bucket of ‘not everything is possible.’ I think the number of services that she is still able to access is amazing, and ultimately, there are constraints to the current situation we’re in.”

Parent teacher

In Penacook, mother Elena Marcotte said her 7-year-old son Connor’s educators are trying to give her tips on how to keep him focused.

“One of the biggest challenges is trying to teach him in his learning style,” she said of Connor, who is autistic. “He works best with small amounts of work and then rewards. One suggestion was to work with him in 1-2 minute sections and then give a reward, rewards could be time on the iPad, goldfish, et cetera.”

She still worries he’ll have setbacks when he gets back to school. Although he’s still getting some form of the speech and occupational therapy he received at school, it’s not the same, she said.

“I fear that he will go 10 steps backwards besides 10 steps forward,” she said. “In school he has a strict schedule and working from home as well as trying to teach him, I personally cannot provide that strict schedule that he needs.”

Elizabeth Brodeur Smart said she worries Coralee, who usually receives regular support at school and outpatient occupational, physical and speech therapy, will have setbacks without those services.

“She has really tight tone in her muscle and they have relaxed her a lot,” Smart said. “She was also in pool therapy, which she loved. They also were going to start a trial with a communication device.”

Smart said she’s tried to mimic some of the services her daughter received out of the house, but it’s not the same.

Duran said she’s been impressed with all of the support her daughter is able to get at school. Katie receives one-on-one support in reading and math twice a day via Google meets.

She said her family has had fun doing a lot of the assignments. There was one recently where she and her daughter had to listen to a song and create a drawing inspired by the music.

Katie got out her crayons and markers and went to work. 

“It sounds like a storm coming upon the ocean,” she said to her family as she sketched.

Physical therapy is Katie’s favorite part of the week, her mom said. Katie takes her Chrome Book up to her room, and video conferences with her physical therapist, who leads her in activities like freeze dance and yoga.

There are some skills, however, that do not transfer to remote learning. Katie’s mom said she’s worried about Katie’s social-emotional development while being stuck at home.

“We’ve worked so hard, especially Katie, to get her to such a good place where she is functioning in a school setting almost independently and has built meaningful relationships with her peers,” she said. “I worry about that, when we finally come back, whether its sometime in May or not until September, we’re going to have to start over building those friendships and relationships.”

Ashleigh Lowe, whose 14-year-old son, Alexander, has autism, said she’s just trying to focus on keeping her family healthy and safe during the crisis with COVID-19. She said they are slowly introducing services like speech and paraeducator services in small, 10- to 20-minute increments each day.

“Sometimes it’s tough, and we get frustrated,” Lowe said. “We just have to take a second, tell him to take a deep breath, let him know that he can take a break and he can start over again if he wants to.”

For her, it’s about maintaining the skills Alexander already has, not necessarily advancing them.

“The overall feeling that I’m getting from a lot of parents is, ‘I can’t do all of this and I’m failing.’ ” Our primary focus should be parenting and supplementing where we can with services and academics,” she said.

“At the end of the day, we are not their teachers, and we are not their physical therapists, occupational therapists, we are their parents, and we can’t lose sight of that,” she continued. “They need to know that we are still the safe harbor, that we are still mom and dad and that doesn’t change during all of this.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

Categories: Autism, COVID-19, Special Needs