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Teaching During a Pandemic

by Marj Ochs

How special needs students were left behind

When schools shut down in March 2020, educators and parents scrambled to make alternate teaching plans for students in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of in-person, all-day teaching, students attended zoom calls, watched educational videos, or did online math games. Many students struggled with this format, especially special needs students.

“While I know their teachers worked so very hard to provide the best education they could in these circumstances, my children made very little if any progress during these months at home, and I know there has been regression.” – Amy Livingston, Maryland

It’s a statement that could come from any parent during these trying times of homeschooling during a pandemic, but for special needs parents, it is even more urgent. Special needs children are often already behind their peers academically, and one-on-one teaching is often the best or only way they learn.

Amy Livingston has two children with Down syndrome – Polina, 13; and Evan, 10. She says that her daughter did fairly well with the online learning.  Homeschooling provided Livingston with the opportunity to truly assess Polina's reading level and realize Polina had not been challenged enough.  But her son, Evan, struggled. “Evan has autism and ADHD in addition to Down syndrome, so he is very easily distracted by everything going on in the home. Keeping his attention to get through an activity or video was quite challenging.”

Evan, 10 and Polina, 13

Polina cooking for a speech therapy assignment

Evan got so frustrated with the online assignments that he now refuses to do them altogether, and Livingston worries that his aversion to computers will continue to be a problem in the future.

Jennifer Schutter, from Southlake, Texas, says she is disappointed in her school district. She is in one of the most affluent areas of Texas, and she says her 10-year-old son PJ’s education has consisted of “5-7 minutes a week where the teacher played the baby shark song from YouTube and a counting Sesame Street video,” plus the same list of online activities sent out to every special needs child in the district (ages 5-18) and not tailored to her son’s level. According to his IEP, he is supposed to be getting 150 minutes of one-on-one education a day.

Says Schutter, “While most kids have had online learning and testing my son has already missed 11,000 hours of individual instruction and more than 2500 hours of therapy which the school district is legally contracted to provide.”

The Schutter family with PJ, 10, in the front center

According to Christina Hallock, Board Certified Behavior Analyst for a nonprofit therapy center in Texas, school districts were not legally bound to follow the usual guidelines during the pandemic crisis.

“I think that the schools moved online and decided that it was a challenge to do all of the teaching that way. No efforts seemed to be made to accommodate any of the students that were struggling. I know plenty of kids who are typical and they struggled with the online and nothing changed. If they continue online a lot of changes will have to be made to fall in line legally.”

The center where Hallock is employed has stayed open during the pandemic but has taken extra safety precautions including temperature checks at arrival and drop off, hourly hand washing, and keeping children 6 feet apart. She says “most of the kids are in one to one therapy so that makes it easy.”

Livingston had hoped that over the summer, some ground could be made up in summer school, but that has been moved online as well.

“My kids qualify yearly to receive ESY services each summer to help prevent regression while school is out- and this year they have already decided that all ESY services will be more distance learning, none in person. But at the same time they are developing plans for the gen ed population for recovery learning, bringing in small groups of students who struggled with distance learning. This is how ESY should have been implemented as well since our special needs kiddos are the ones who really need in person services the most.”

Schutter says that while Southlake/Carroll ISD has started summer athletic training in the school district, ESY summer school is only being offered online. She posted a plea for help in a local moms’ Facebook group.

“As you are pulling out your sports equipment I ask that you to please pray for my son and the other special needs children in this district who are still being left behind and if you see my son and I holding signs in front of the district offices in protest this summer please wave or honk to show us that you have not forgotten about those that can’t speak up for themselves.”

The Southlake/Carroll school district says they decided to stick to their decision to offer summer school solely online even though the Texas Education Agency allowed schools to open as of June 1.

“The decision to offer online learning was made well in advance of TEA's recent announcement that schools could open for summer school June 1 with restrictions. Based on the restrictions, athletes and coaches will remain 6 ft. apart when not exercising and 10 ft. apart when exercising.” – Tyisha Nelson, Executive Director for Special Programs, Carroll ISD

Now parents are shifting focus to the fall, hoping that schools will open up to at least half days for special needs students. School districts are considering a variety of options including on-campus instruction, virtual instruction, or a blend of the two.

Livingston says, “I fear how much they will regress come fall if they do not get back into the building on a regular basis.”

Hallock, a BCBA at a therapy center, suggests “[i]f they are still online, then if they would open to small group or one to one office hours where kids can go get help in person this would be ideal. It would help all kids that way and it would be a way to schedule those interactions and keep them safe. If they open up, then they need to go back and follow the IEP the way it was written and hold ARD meetings to determine if new accommodations are needed due to any regression.”

Livingston says that special needs children need to be made a priority.

Schools need to take the time to meet these kids where they can be most successful. Time needs to be set aside to bring them in a few or even one at a time when they are unable to achieve at home…It is my greatest hope that children with special needs will be prioritized #1 when it comes to allotting time to students returning to the brick and mortar classrooms. The services they need simply cannot be replicated virtually.”

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Article credit : Marj Ochs 

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