Switch to remote ed fuels concerns for disabled students

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For schools and related services providing special education programs for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues can include “sort of a balancing act,” says Toni-Anne Johns, director of Early Childhood Autism Services at the Kelberman Center in Utica.

When asked about national concerns that special education children may be regressing amid frequent back-and-forth shifts in many cases to all-remote or hybrid instruction due to COVID-19, Johns said “I think it’s a valid concern.”

She cited “balancing their risks for regression with safety needs of staff and students and families” as the pandemic continues.

It is “sort of a balancing act,” and it “has been since March” when disruptions began because of COVID-19, said Johns, whose pre-school program serves children including ages 3 to 5 who are referred from several school districts. Included are about 40 students from about 16 districts in four counties.

At Kelberman, where her program has been hybrid during the current school year but as of Dec. 11 will be all-remote until Jan. 11, Johns said “our kids are generally moving in the right direction” without major backslides. While there “may be slower progress,” she added, children still are “making progress across the board.”

The situation for such high-needs students has triggered varying reactions nationally as well as locally.

A recent Associated Press report addressed complications that it said are shared by many of the country’s 7 million students with disabilities, who represent 14% of American schoolchildren. It noted that advocates for the students say long periods of learning from home, and erratic attempts to reopen schools, are worsening issues that began with changes to distance learning last March.

“Regression is something that will be very, very hard to recuperate from,” Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said in the AP report. It also referred to a recent Government Accountability Office report that indicated struggles by school districts to deliver guaranteed services like physical therapy that must be in-person or that require equipment.

The AP report additionally mentioned a speech pathologist at a Texas school, Tara Kirkpatrick, who described video sessions with little resemblance to speech therapy face-to-face. But she also believes teachers and families are doing their best under the circumstances.

Among a contrasting range of local perspectives:

• Margaret Gallaway, program director of Life at RCIL (Resource Center for Independent Living) of Utica, said her organization has seen that students who have autism, attention-deficit disorders, oppositional defiant disorders, or learning disabilities “find it very hard to sit in front of a computer for short and long periods of time.”

Gallaway observed that in school districts with diverse student populations such as bi-lingual or families with low-to-moderate income, there can be “trouble in navigating the technology and communicating with the schools.” She added that services for students receiving special education such as occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services have “become increasingly hard to conduct remotely, as well as in-person.”

When there is “switching back and forth from in person/hybrid and remote, students’ routines become inconsistent,” Gallaway commented, and “therefore many parents have seen behaviors increase, lack of motivation or regression is on the rise.”

She also said “IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and 504 plans are not being followed” or are “inconsistent on how they are being implemented as well as follow-through.”

• In the Rome school district, about 128 supported learning/special education students in self-contained classes had been receiving in-person instruction since the start of the academic year in September.

But Superintendent Peter C. Blake announced Saturday all remaining district classrooms, including for supported learning, would shift to remote learning on Monday and would remain in that format through at least Jan. 8. The decision “does not come lightly as we understand what a vital part of education in-person learning experiences are for our students and how our schools support families throughout the community,” he commented.

Blake had previously announced Dec. 5 that general education programs in the district would shift to all-remote through Jan. 8; those programs had begun the school year all-remote until moving to a hybrid format on Oct. 26.

Blake also had said Dec. 5 that efforts to continue in-person instruction for the approximately 128 supported learning students were in seeking to make sure the district was meeting IEPs to the best of its ability, but additionally noted it would be contingent on maintaining a safe learning environment amid COVID-19. On Friday he praised the efforts of their teachers and staff who had been “answering the call daily, since September, to keep their rooms open for kids to grow and learn.” and said he was proud of their work. He said teachers, therapists, and assistants had “gone to great lengths to support our students and their families the past four months to ensure that we can help move forward, together.”

Blake commented Friday “all educational programs have been hindered and affected by COVID-19,” but also said “there is no doubt that students within special education programs throughout the country may be suffering the most due to remote learning.”

He further observed Monday, “all kids’ learning is hindered the longer we have to endure this crisis.”

• In the Camden school district, Superintendent Dr. Ravo Root II said “for most of the year we have operated with most students with disabilities receiving in-person instruction two days per week and online instruction three days a week.” Students in self-contained classrooms have been served in-person four days a week and online one day per week, which was “until our recent move to all online/remote learning,” he added; the district is staying in that format until Jan. 19.

Students in out-of-district programs have attended in-person whenever the programs have been holding such instruction, said Root, adding “most of them have seen students in-person since September.”

For special education, “we are still doing our best to meet the needs of every student and to comply with what is specified in every student’s IEP,” observed Root. “We have modified our schedules to accommodate some students with disabilities for in-person instruction as much as was safe to do so. We have provided our students with devices to use at home and we have provided their families with ample support in how to use the devices and our various online learning platforms.”

The biggest challenge has been “getting students to consistently log in to their classrooms while at home,” Root remarked. “Other than that, our online instruction and delivery of related services has gone very well. Our teachers and service providers are in contact with parents daily and most of our families are very happy with the instruction and support that their children receive.”

Root expressed pride in faculty and staff serving the district’s students with special needs, adding “they go above and beyond to meet their individual needs.”

• At the Kelberman Center’s pre-school program, Johns said “our staff has really invested a lot of time into...communicating with families...and how to best serve needs” during the hybrid/remote format including tailoring services to families.

Some materials have been sent home to parents to help assist with instruction, said Johns, plus there have been live sessions as well as recorded videos available. Families are taking advantage of activities and materials provided, and have “taken the rein and run with it,” she commented.

“Families have been huge” in their efforts and have “really stepped in and become co-teachers with us,” Johns said. She also pointed out the sudden closings last March and abrupt shifts at that time to all-remote, plus uncertainties then over how long it would continue, had resulted in a situation where “we were sort of making it up as we went along.” However, “we definitely came back in September with a much more polished model” for hybrid instruction.

Besides its pre-school program, Johns said the Kelberman Center offers various other services to supplement school districts’ efforts such as evaluation and therapy, school consultations and ABA (applied behavioral analysis) services.

Gallaway of the RCIL, when asked about steps area-wide to possibly help improve the overall situation for special education students, suggested that communication be kept open and consistent with parents and students. She also said there should be efforts to try to keep the highest-needs students in school, plus school districts should seek community resources for serving students with disabilities.

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