The COVID-19 pandemic has required school systems around the world to try to teach remotely, leading to a loss of academic learning, social skills, and emotional development in many students.
Serving children in need of special education services has proven to be an even greater challenge. Students with autism need work on their social development just as much as their academics. Specialized services such as occupational, physical, and speech therapies often involve touching the student to prompt movements. Behavior therapy can require constant redirection and provision of replacement behaviors that are very hard to do virtually.
All of these therapies involve specific supplies and equipment that are not readily accessible in most homes. Thus, in addition to academic losses, special needs students generally have had greatly reduced access to the types of services that allow them to approach the levels of their typically developing peers in these areas.
I spoke to several parents of students who attend a variety of public, charter and private schools, and private placements through OSSE (Office of State Superintendent of Education), all of whom expressed concern at the way students with special education needs are being handled. Students in DC public schools were both in general education classrooms, being educated with their neurotypical peers, and self-contained classrooms, where all the students have disabilities.
When asked to comment on how school has gone during the pandemic Margaret, the mother of a 10-year-old special education student in a charter school quipped, “The Hill Rag is a family paper so I’m not sure they could print what I have to say.” When pushed she added, “The school year was awful – online speech and occupational therapy, deprioritizing special needs kids for return to in-person learning, very poor communication around [Extended School Year].”
Monica, a mother with a 15-year-old DCPS student with autism was also disheartened by the lack of in-person learning for special education students, saying that she “could not believe that children in self-contained classrooms with low numbers” could not be returned before 16 months. “The damage is staggering,” she lamented. Her son needs continual behavioral feedback and verbal prompting to be able to perform at his highest level. There is no way even the best therapists and teachers can provide that kind of assistance remotely.
Another parent, Arthur, agrees, saying that the situation puts special needs students “at the mercy of negotiations between DCPS and the Union.” The parents, who have a seven-year-old with autism in DCPS, were initially told that their son would be returning to school only to be told later that he would not, even though his typically developing classmates did. He finally did return part-time but is already delayed in his academic skills and, like most autistic children, needs constant work on his social and behavioral skills.
Even some schools designed specifically for special education with smaller class sizes and more opportunity for social distancing did not return to in-person learning until recently. Heather’s 15-year-old son with autism is in a private placement through OSSE, but still he did not attend school from March 2020 through July 2021. Heather reports that “remote school was not good for him.” She continues, “I am not as concerned about academic progress, but rather that kids with such disabilities need to practice behavioral skills, such as following rules, functioning in a group and with peers every day and that as a result of not being in school [her son] is severely out of practice.”
“We survived only because of the great effort of our [behavior] therapists and our Medicaid advocate,” remarks Sarah, mother of an eight-year-old with global disabilities in a self-contained classroom in DCPS. “While his school tried to concoct 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 makes the important point that there is no such thing as virtual learning or therapy when a student is non-verbal. It takes a certain amount of ability to communicate without assistive technology such as a handheld communication device to be able to teach and learn remotely.
Only one parent reported that school went smoothly during the pandemic. When Covid-19 first hit last March, 17-year-old Mark, a student at Fusion Academy in Northwest Washington, was “fortunate enough to move seamlessly from full-time, in-person school to Zoom.”
His mother, Cynthia, credits that to the fact that Fusion Academy has a one-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. “Honestly, there was almost no impact on him because Zoom is not that much different from just being in class one-to-one,” she continues. Because of the already socially distanced format of the school, they were able to return to in-person learning in September, so this year has been mostly normal for them. After having to homeschool her son due to physical disabilities and severe anxiety, Cynthia is relieved that he was able to attend school in-person and grateful that he will continue to do so in the fall.
All of the parents expressed great relief that it looks like all students will be returning to school full time and in person this summer or fall at the latest. Many special education students participate in a program called Extended School Year, which provides education and specialized services such as speech therapy over the summer to decrease learning losses during the break.
Monica’s son will be attending a DCPS summer program, and she hopes that the return to school “will spur some regaining of the skill and learning loss.” Sarah’s son was able to return to school recently, and he is “thrilled to be back in school.” Arthur notes that they saw “dramatic gains in socioemotional health and social skills” when their son returned to school this spring. Even though he only returned on a part-time schedule, he also started to make leaps in his reading skills as well. The parents “hope that the fall will be smooth and that our son will return to the routine and make more academic gains.”
Jane, an occupational therapist, did her best with virtual learning and then part-time, in-person services with her students in DCPS, but she is eager to return to full-time, in-person school. “There were challenges with technology and with parents who were juggling multiple kids’ schedules,” she said. “Most of all, I just really enjoy being with the students and being able to work with them directly.” She drove to her students’ homes to deliver supplies to enable them to develop their skills, but it will be easier once she is back in a school with her supplies readily at hand.
The pandemic has created challenges for all of us and the impact will not quickly disappear, but for special education students, who are already by definition delayed or disabled in some way, this loss of progress could cause lifelong damage.
E.V. Downey is an educational consultant with Downey School Consulting, a camp director at Busy Bees Camps, a flute teacher at Music on the Hill, and a tutor and behavioral therapist. A graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, she has raised her own two kids on Capitol Hill.