I am a retired elementary teacher with 32 years of experience and a Masters’ Degree in Educational Psychology. These quotes are from a parent with a special-needs severely autistic twelve-year old and they are addressing the incredible negative effects of the school shutdown on her son.
“Covid-19 has further exasperated the disparities in everything from healthcare to education for those with special needs!” “Now more than ever individuals with disabilities need advocates and champions that will ensure their needs are considered first and accommodations and services continue regardless of environmental barriers.”
“Parents and caregivers are exhausted, beaten down and continually discouraged by the way in which their children are treated. It is time that those most vulnerable are considered first and with the best we have to offer as opposed to secondary accommodations. We MUST do better!”
“There are more than 57 million individuals with disabilities, we all know someone and may one day ourselves become part of the community, it’s time to create a grassroots groundswell that engages policy makers and ultimately the necessary legislation to improve quality of life and end the social injustice.”
Having taught children with Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) I fear that the current school situation prevents these precious children from receiving the quality help to which they are entitled. Online learning is challenging for many students and concentration wanes without the physical presence of the teacher to keep the child directed towards the task. Attention wanders at the slightest visual, smell or auditory prompt such as a barking dog, the lawnmower, the apple pie in the oven for example. If on the computer at home more distractions are the norm because in many cases the home environment is not at all like the school environment.
They might be vastly different, and many families may not have sufficient space, funds or learning resources for the child to maximize learning. Additionally, how an a severely autistic child be expected to remain at the computer for seven hours when ten minutes is already challenging!
Can the teacher provide the necessary help for students online? Once again, there is something about the physical closeness between teacher and learner in the same location which cements the relationship and provides needed nurturance, encouragement, and praise for the student.
It is harder to give immediate feedback and praise to a child online assuming all the technology is always running smoothly. During this time of intense usage and pioneering new programs we know technology frequently fails to function properly and sometimes not at all. This situation may lead to more discouragement and anxiety which is the last thing any student, parent or teacher wants.
Who is checking to see if the IEP is being properly implemented? Can the teacher do so or is it up to the parent? Can all implementations even be done at home? For example, speech therapy is best done face to face not across the internet. Counseling is most certainly more effective in person on a one-to-one basis. Have all required services even been provided during this chaotic time?
Most schools struggle to do so but many parents say services have most definitely failed. With numerous changes come many ways in which communication can break down. Ultimately the student may be caught in a technological web of disasters.
Can meetings with The Child Study Team be as effective on a Zoom call? Perhaps, but personal and specific things are more difficult to express online and the lockdown has, according to many parents, strained Home/ Child Study Team communication.
Some schools using the hybrid approach have schedules which even an adult cannot easily follow. Consistency and predictability are essential for those with extra challenges and are beneficial for all students. Difficulty with the schedule leads to a feeling of lack of control, increased anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness. I believe that more cases of depression can be found among special-needs students during this changing educational situation. Their socialization is much more limited causing enormous confusion. Is anyone paying attention to that fact? Unanticipated educational, emotional, and psychological consequences result from this abnormal situation. Hopefully, for the sake of all but especially challenged students the abnormal will soon return to more normal and great stresses and barriers to the learning process for children with learning differences will be significantly reduced.
The challenge is to advocate for these students in the best way possible so speak up and ask questions and let your school system know how learning is progressing for special needs students. Be persistent in requiring that school systems provide the necessary educational and related services for those with IEP’s. Clearly, the state legislature, state school board and the local school districts are not aware that students with special needs and their families are laboring under a failed system. What are the answers?
Gabriella Brandeal, MA
Director of Education
The Center for Garden State Families