For special ed students, e-learning a unique challenge
Support groups and advocacy help parents cope with daunting task
By MICHAEL ROMAIN
In April, Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned school districts across Illinois that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they should anticipate and prepare for the possibility that virtual learning, or e-learning, could continue into the upcoming school year.
For any parent, the prospect of a child spending yet another academic year out of the classroom is deeply unnerving. But for parents of students with special needs, the prospect is even more unsettling.
“I feel like I replaced 11 people,” said Erika, who teaches at Oak Park and River Forest High School and is the parent of a special needs student who attends a District 97 elementary school, during an interview in late May.
“I took over all those jobs. Some learning happens through video, but I have to be with him doing it all of the time and that actually makes it even more difficult sometimes,” she said. “I’m a teacher. It should be easier for me, but it doesn’t feel like it.”
Munirah, the mother of a District 97 student with Down syndrome, said in May that for her, e-learning has also meant the physical absence of an array of professional support services. She said her son needs occupational therapy to navigate the computer keyboard and to write his assignments, physical therapy to build the core strength to sit in a chair during school, and speech therapy to communicate, among other services.
More e-learning means juggling a diversity of roles and functions neither thought they’d have to fill before the pandemic, said both mothers, whose last names and the names of their children have been omitted out of concern for the students’ privacy.
Munirah said she and her husband took care of their children’s e-learning needs by taking shifts. Planning and coordinating the day helped tremendously, she and Erika said.
“Every night I have a schedule,” she said. “I have a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday schedule and I just map out the time of day, the Zoom session, the ID and the password. I make it new every night because everyone’s Zoom password seems to change so often and we’ve got between six and 12 sessions among the kids.”
“We have a big white board,” Erika said. “And if teachers didn’t provide continuity, I just made it up. We have a math slot and teachers have to call in during the math slot. The scheduling thing is to an nth degree.”
A key aspect of disciplined organization, Erika said, is having the power to “let some things go.” Prioritize your tasks and do what you can. What you can’t do, you can’t do. And be comfortable within your self-organized limitations, they explained.
The parents said that being robust advocates for their children and connecting with other parents with similar experiences were also critical during the e-learning period.
“At first I had anxieties about our children with special needs, but then I realized that the advocacy portion has to blossom when the teacher doesn’t have physical contact with your child,” Munirah said. “I’ve reached out to all my kids’ teachers and said, ‘My child needs more; can you give them feedback?'”
Donna Middleton, D97’s senior director of special education, said the district’s weekly Zoom support group meeting was a vital coping tool for parents of children with special needs who were navigating the e-learning environment.
Middleton said the Zoom group started meeting each Monday in early April. Over time, attendance grew.
“I realized we needed a support group,” she said, adding that the group gave many attendees the sense “that we’re a community, that we are in this together and that, while I may not have all the answers right now, this is evolving and we’re learning from one another.”
“As a parent, my anxiety level has improved by the fact that I know there are other parents going through the same thing and because of that, I’m not passing that anxiety onto my kids,” Munirah said.
Middleton said that during the e-learning period, the district implemented a variety of services targeted to special education students who rely on an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Those included 15-minute mental-health wellness checks, videos created by school psychologists and social workers addressing a range of issues like executive functioning and anxiety, and a department newsletter filled with resources and tips that was sent to families on a regular basis.
Kennedi Dixon, the divisional special education director at OPRF High School, said her division implemented Google Hangouts for students, which allowed them to see their teachers and support staff through a screen. They also hosted a parade for students.
But there’s no denying the impact of COVID-19, Dixon said.
“Even though we’re in remote learning, that does not eliminate the laws associated with special education,” she said in May. “We still have to provide all of those services to our students and for those students who have social-emotional needs, they’re still getting their support, but remotely. Students miss that human element of being in a physical space with someone they can trust.”
Regardless of whether students continue e-learning or return to the classrooms in the fall, it’s important that educators take an honest and realistic approach to future interventions, Dixon explained.
“COVID-19 has been a traumatic experience for many of our students, so we have to be honest that a trauma has taken place and approach interventions from a trauma-informed mindset,” she said.
Erika voiced that trauma in May.
“One anxiety unique to people like Munirah and me is that we face the very real possibility of regression,” she said. “That’s terrifying. For our kids who are behind, that’s a scary thing our families deal with that others don’t understand.”