A father in Sangamon County in central Illinois was concerned about how his 10-year-old child, who receives occupational and vision therapy at school, including those with disabilities, will be affected by remote learning, reported Jodi S. Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards of Propublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom.
The father received a letter from his son’s school district, which made him more worried. In the letter, it asked parents to accept remote learning—which was a scaled-down version of what was provided when schools were opened—or decline and acknowledge that they were “voluntarily waiving” their rights to free public education and their rights to seek services from the school.
The father and other parents of students with special needs feared that their children would not get their education and other services like speech therapy and counseling. These benefits were granted to them under federal law during school closures. Additionally, parents expressed their concern that their children would not be able to take them up or get them back if they lose access to the aforementioned services.
Survey Reveals the Status of Distance Learning During the Pandemic
ParentsTogether Action, a parent-led organization with more than two million members, conducted a survey involving over 1,500 families around the US about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children’s education. The report revealed that 13% of children from low-income households have either no device or no internet unlike 1% of families earning more than $50,000.
Families with a household income of less than $25,000 (38%) were more likely than those who earn more than $100,000 (3.7%) to say their children are doing little or no remote learning. Those from low-income households were also three times more likely (32%) not to have consistent access to a device versus those from higher-income households (10%). Compared to higher-income homes (2%), children from low-income homes (11%) were more likely to go to a school not offering distance learning materials or activities at all.
Unlike parents from higher-income households (10%), those from low-income homes (36%) were more likely to say remote learning is going poorly or very poorly and they are also more likely to say that their child’s work is mostly or entirely busy work (35% versus 19%). Moreover, only 20% of parents whose kids have an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or are entitled to other special education services said they are receiving those services. Sadly, 39% did not receive support at all. Kids who qualify for individual learning plans were also twice as likely as their peer to be doing little or no remote learning (35% versus 17%).
40% of children who qualified for individual learning plans were more likely than those without IEPs (19%) to say that distance learning is going poorly. 40% of children who qualify for individual learning plans (40%) were twice as concerned about their kids’ mental health (versus 23% for those without IEPs). In another survey by Parsippany-Troy Hills Township Schools, a K-12 district with 14 schools, 39% of parents said distance learning was about what was expected, 28% answered that it was better than expected, and 17% said it was much better than expected. 12% said distance learning was not as good as expected while 4% said it was much worse than expected.
One parent commented that it was difficult to engage their two younger children, who both have special needs. The parent claimed their kids were not engaged with their academics unlike when they were at school. With regard to academic “screen time,” 62% of parents said it was just the right amount of screen time. 27% said their child’s screentime was too much while 11% answered “too little screen time.”
Another parent said the amount of screentime caused their children to have headaches each day. Further, 71% of parents felt their child is being given just the right amount of school work via the distance learning plan. 16% said their child was given too much school work while 13% answered “too little.”
Hardships Abound for Parents of Children With Special Needs
The father of the 10-year-old child said, “It is inappropriate that they are asking everyone to sign these forms to take it or leave it, and if you decline, we will have you waive your rights.” No school district should request a parent to voluntarily relinquish their child’s right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), as stated by the new guidance, emphasizing that federal law does not permit districts to use those waivers.
Although the state agency has intervened, some parents of special education students expressed their concern as they rely on experienced school staff to assist their children. Those families also have to advocate for the services they receive.
Parents and Special Education Professionals Struggle to Provide Educational Needs
Bennet Pellegrino, a special education teacher near Philadelphia, stated that while the district is supportive, it is not doing enough to cater to her son’s needs, who was born with cerebral palsy and legally blind, reported Erin Snodgrass and Lee Zurik of KGNS.tv, an NBC/ABC/Telemundo-affiliated television station. Pellegrino explained, “The lack of guidance that they have, from the federal and state level, I think is what’s really impeding districts’ ability to ensure that they can do what they need to do for their students.”
In Massachusetts, mother of five Carrie Trenholm said she became solely responsible for her non-verbal son’s education when schools shut down in March. Trenholm asserted that the school “did not give any prep.” The school is trying their best by giving support and answering questions, but for her six-year-old son, he needs a more hands-on type of learning. Even counselors, physical therapists, reading specialists, and pathologists who work remotely try to be as creative as they can to support students with special needs, stated Sarya Wintersmith of WGBH News, a public radio station.
For example, occupational therapist at Roxbury’s Orchard Garden’s K-8 School Alicia Seaver normally helps students navigate around the classroom by practicing how to write, picking and carrying supplies for tasks, and moving around or sitting still when instructed. Due to the pandemic, Seaver and other special education service professionals create virtual classrooms and specialized instructional videos for students and parents to watch at their own pace.
It is not possible for parents to do the work by themselves. For parents, especially those who are employed, it is difficult for them to help their kids do their assignments and stay online during virtual classes, noted James Baron, a special education attorney in private practice. Although school districts provide limited resources, parents experience difficulty in what they should accept and demand from educational services during the crisis.
No child should be left behind during the crisis. Children with special needs should be given equal access to education. Distance learning is easy for higher-income families, but schools should also cater to the needs of low-income households.