The (Particular Schooling) Youngsters Are Not Alright
Young therapist talking to child, counselor and behavior correction in office, showing happy and sad face
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school systems around the world trying to teach remotely, resulting in a loss of academic learning, social skills and emotional development for many students.
Helping children in need of special education has proven to be an even greater challenge. Students with autism need just as much social development work as their academics. Specialized services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy often involve touching the student to trigger movement. Behavioral therapy can require constant reorientation and the provision of substitute behaviors that are very difficult to achieve virtually.
All of these therapies involve specific consumables and devices that are not readily available in most households. In addition to the academic losses, students with special needs have generally had severely limited access to the types of services that allow them to approach the levels of their normally developing fellow students in these areas.
I have spoken to several parents of students attending a variety of public, charter, and private schools, as well as private internships through the Office of State Superintendent of Education, all of whom have expressed concerns about the way students with special educational needs are doing be treated. DC public school students were in both general education classrooms taught with their neurotypical peers and standalone classrooms where all students were disabled.
When asked how the school went during the pandemic, Margaret, the mother of a 10 year old special school student at a charter school, quipped, “The Hill Rag is a family newspaper so I’m not sure they can print anything I have to say . “When urged, she added,” The school year has been terrible – online language and occupational therapy, belittling children with special needs to return to face-to-face learning, very poor communication [Extended School Year]. “
Monica, a mother of a 15-year-old DCPS student with autism, was also disheartened by the lack of face-to-face learning for special education students, saying that she “couldn’t believe that children in low-numbered locked classrooms” couldn’t return before 16 months become. “The damage is terrifying,” she complained. Your son needs continuous behavioral feedback and verbal prompts in order to perform at his best. Even the best therapists and teachers cannot remotely provide this type of help.
Another parent, Arthur, agrees, saying that the situation is “at the mercy of negotiations between DCPS and the Union” for students with special needs. Parents who have a seven year old with autism in DCPS were initially told their son would be returning to school, only to be later found out that he would not, even though his normally developing classmates did. He eventually returned part-time but is already delayed in his academic skills and, like most autistic children, has to constantly work on his social and behavioral skills.
Even some schools designed specifically for special education with smaller class sizes and more social distancing opportunities have not returned to face-to-face learning until recently. Heather’s 15-year-old son with autism is on a private internship at OSSE, but he was out of school from March 2020 to July 2021. Heather reports that “distance learning was not good for him.” She continues, “I am not so concerned about school progress as much as the need for children with such disabilities to practice behavioral skills such as walking [her son] is strong from practice. “
“We only survived because of our great efforts [behavior] Therapists and our Medicaid advocate, ”notes Sarah, mother of an eight-year-old with global disabilities in an enclosed classroom at DCPS. “While his school was trying to set up a morning meeting that would keep his interest, there was no way to build skills or do more than check in on a tablet.”
Sarah points out that there is no virtual learning or therapy when a student is nonverbal. In order to be able to teach and learn remotely, a certain level of skill is required to communicate without assistive technology such as a portable communication device.
Only one parent reported that school went smoothly during the pandemic. When Covid-19 first appeared last March, 17-year-old Mark, a student at Fusion Academy in northwest Washington, was “fortunate enough to transition seamlessly from full-time classroom schooling to Zoom.”
His mother, Cynthia, attributes this to the fact that Fusion Academy has a one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. “To be honest, it had almost no effect on him because Zoom isn’t that different from one-to-one,” she continues. Due to the already socially distant format of the school, they were able to return to face-to-face classes in September, so that this year was largely normal for them. After Cynthia had to teach her son at home due to physical disabilities and severe anxiety, she is relieved that he was able to attend school in person and grateful that he will also do so in the fall.
All parents were very relieved that it is foreseeable that all students will return to school full-time and personally this summer or autumn at the latest. Many special school students take part in a program called Extended School Year, which provides summer education and special services like speech therapy to help reduce learning losses during recess.
Monica’s son will be participating in a DCPS summer program and she hopes that returning to school will “stimulate some skill regain and learning loss.” Sarah’s son recently returned to school and is “excited to be back at school”. Arthur notes that they made “dramatic improvements in socio-emotional health and social skills” when their son returned to school this spring. Although he only returned part-time, he also made progress in his reading skills. The parents “hope that the fall will go smoothly and that our son will return to everyday life and make more progress in school”.
Jane, an occupational therapist, has done her best with virtual learning and then personally mentored part-time with her students at DCPS, but she is eager to return to full-time school. “There were challenges with technology and with parents juggling multiple children’s plans,” she said. “What I just enjoy most is being with the students and being able to work directly with them.” She drove to her students’ homes to provide material so they can develop their skills, but it gets easier when she is back at school and has her materials at hand.
The pandemic has posed challenges for all of us and the effects won’t go away anytime soon, but for special education students who are already delayed or in some way disabled by definition, that loss of progress could cause lifelong damage.
EV Downey is an educational advisor at Downey School Consulting, camp leader at Busy Bees Camps, flute teacher at Music on the Hill, and tutor and behavioral therapist. A graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, she raised her own two children on Capitol Hill.