For students with special needs, distance learning may not cut it
Kate Patton's home is now a hub for remote learning.
She and her husband are both in college, doing course work online since the coronavirus pandemic led schools in Oregon to close for the rest of the academic year.
They're trying to keep their 4-year-old engaged with activities, and Patton's 5-year-old son, Joey, is in a pre-kindergarten program provided by the Hillsboro School District. Next week, the family has a virtual meeting scheduled to establish an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, for Joey, who is autistic.
IEPs are legally binding, providing a roadmap for delivering education to students who may learn in different ways from their peers, or may not learn at all without extra support. Children with IEPs are some of the most vulnerable in an educational setting. Typically they're evaluated and then placed in either a general education classroom or a special education classroom, depending on their needs.
Joey is on the cusp.
Facing new challenges
Since students across Oregon moved to distance learning, teachers have had to find ways to deliver curriculum in a new format, while also providing resources like therapists and aides to those with IEPs.
Parents like Patton say schools are doing their best to help students, but they worry about the intangibles — the lack of socialization and peer-to-peer interaction, and the loss of structured environments that foster the kind of social and emotional learning that is crucial at young ages.
"Joey is on the borderline of being in a SpEd classroom or mainstream classroom anyway, but now without the ability for him to practice those social skills in a classroom setting, I worry," Patton said. "I think for some kids who are on the borderline, this will make the difference in which side they land on, come fall. It's such a core time in social development, and instead you're just home with your parents."
When the Oregon Department of Education rolled out guidelines for distance learning, the state agency noted that parents must play a key role in helping their children learn at home.
Parents like Patton don't have the specialized skill set needed to make sure their children are learning.
"I'm not an SLT, or an (occupational therapist) or a special ed teacher. I'm just his mom," Patton said. "I'm used to having so much support from the people who help him. I'm still getting that support, but it's just not the same."
Patton's dilemma isn't unique, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.
On Tuesday, May 5, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, along with 24 other senators across the U.S., wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, asking that provisions in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) be upheld during the COVID-19 pandemic. The senators also want an additional $11.9 billion in funding made available to states under IDEA, to help school districts grappling with new costs related to COVID-19.
"While all students are impacted by these unique circumstances, students who experience disabilities often require additional supports and services and face additional educational disruptions resulting from this pandemic," the senators wrote.
The additional funding requested would help bolster early childhood education programs and pre-school programs, with the bulk of funds — $11 billion — used for state grants to schools.
One size doesn't fit all
Some students' needs are too dependent on in-person interaction to make virtual learning worth it.
Kristy Kottkey's 15-year-old son, Henry, attends Oak Grove Academy, a therapeutic day treatment center operated by the Forest Grove School District.
Henry is severely autistic and has always had a one-on-one aide while at school.
He is almost nonverbal, and Oak Grove staff focus on teaching Henry life skills and doing behavioral therapies, Kottkey said. Staff might expose Henry to new sensory inputs, such as trying a new vegetable; help him with letters, numbers and certain words; or teach him how to fold clothes, for example, Kottkey said.
"They do a lot of art and painting and music — he loves music," Kottkey said.
As districts developed distance learning plans, Kottkey and her husband, Kevin, realized what the school could provide wouldn't yield enough benefits for Henry. They decided to forego school for the rest of the year.
"I don't want people to think the district didn't want to provide anything," said Kottkey, who was recently appointed to the Forest Grove City Council. "Their offerings were everything we could have hoped. For us personally, because I know our situation and I also know my son, I knew that the energy expended on all of that by the teachers and by us wouldn't have resulted in much learning and might have resulted in additional stress."
Kottkey said she would rather have staff at Oak Grove and the district put their energy into developing a plan that might allow students in small, isolated programs like Henry's to receive in-person teaching — possibly before the general population.
She's worried the next school year won't start on time, and she said she has already started to see a cognitive regression in Henry since the shutdown. With no classes and a stay-at-home order in effect, he's not being exposed to new activities at school, or new experiences out in the community with his parents.
"He has always been moving forward, and this is the first time I've noticed a stall," Kristy Kottkey said. "That concerns me."
If by the middle of the summer, it's clear next year won't start on time, Kottkey said, "I would sit back down with his teachers and say, 'OK, now let us know what we can be working on.'"
She said she and her husband will likely have run out of creative ideas to keep Henry's mind engaged by then.
Effects of distance learning
The Kottkey family isn't the only one to opt out of remote learning altogether.
Danielle Hudson is the executive administrator for student services with the Beaverton School District.
"We were really concerned about the success of our students, especially those with complex needs," Hudson said.
She added, "We have some families who have definitely had to make some choices for their family, and they've said, 'We're going to pause the day-to-day (learning) because it's too challenging.'"
In those cases, teachers are willing to meet parents where they're at, offering "fun activities" that focus more on social skills, Hudson said.
"Our goal is to try to keep them connected in some way to the school environment," she explained.
The Beaverton School District has more than 5,000 students who are eligible for special education. Roughly 600 of those students get most of their education from a special education teacher.
Ava Sujanaprawira's 8-year-old son is one of them.
So far, she says, the video conference sessions with her son's teacher have been great, but there are core components like socialization and fine motor skills that can't be replicated with distance learning.
"These special needs kids need that interaction to develop these skills," Sujanaprawira, a former classroom teacher, said. "You have to have a lot of hand-over-hand (interaction) teaching them how to use scissors, which isn't possible over Zoom."
Despite the challenges, Sujanaprawira said remote learning has presented a silver lining for her family.
At home, her son, whose name is being withheld at his family's request, doesn't have the normal distractions or triggers of a crowded classroom environment.
"Most of his issues are around peer interactions," Sujanaprawira said. "Right now, he doesn't have that, so a lot of the issues he has at school are not there. He gets overwhelmed with loud noises, and we don't have that here."
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