Lucia Parker is concerned about how much her grandson, James, has regressed since schools in Louisiana were shut down in March. Before the pandemic, James, an 8-year-old student in Metairie who has Down syndrome, was able to recognize shapes and numbers and was just starting to read. Now, Parker said, he barely responds to his name.
“His personality has really changed from how he was before the lockdown,” she said.
Parker, who’s raising James, said she has had trouble keeping him engaged and learning while stuck at home. She said she would give him puzzles, read to him and virtually connect him with his physical therapy teacher.
“But after a while, he was getting bored with all of that because he wasn’t getting that socialization.”
Parker is weighing her options. Does she send James back to in-person learning or watch him continue to regress at home? She calls it an impossible choice.
“He touches everything. He keeps his hands in his mouth all the time. I don’t think he would keep the mask on,” said Parker. “So I don’t know how (returning to schools in-person) would work for him.”
Parents across Louisiana are having to balance the risks and rewards of sending their children back to school in a state that last week had the most known COVID-19 cases per capita, but parents of special-needs students have to make additional calculations. The risks of keeping their children home or sending them to school may be even higher.
Yolanda Braxton’s son, Nicholas, who is entering 11th grade in East Baton Rouge Parish, was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus. He cannot walk or talk, requires four hours of physical care a day and needs special accommodations to learn.
Even on normal school days, a classmate’s cold usually meant that Nicholas was coming home with a cold, Braxton said. And she’s not willing to take a chance with COVID-19.
“I’m not going to let this virus take him from me,” said Braxton.
Nicholas has been learning in a classroom with other students with various developmental disabilities, Braxton said. Like Parker, she wonders how school officials will make sure that students with developmental disabilities maintain social distancing and follow other health safety protocols.
“I would really love to sit at the table and come up with a game plan that we can all feel comfortable about,” said Braxton. “Because it feels like my son got locked out of the game plan.”
Schools are required to provide all of the necessary supplemental resources for students with disabilities that they provided before the pandemic, said Kristin-Jo Preston, executive director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s Division for Diverse Learners, which focuses, in part, on improving outcomes for students with disabilities.
Online or in-person, it doesn’t matter, Preston said.
“A lot of people think that the rules (of special education teaching) have changed. They have not,” said Preston. “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has not changed at all; there are no waivers, no adjustment to it. All of the rights and protections remain as is.”
The act Preston mentioned is a federal law that “ensures that all children with an identified disability receive special education and related services to address their individual needs” and “that the rights of children with disabilities and their families are protected under the law.”
School systems must test every special education student to see if school closures had a negative impact on their individual development or skill development, Preston said.
“If that’s the case, then they would offer compensatory services to make them up,” said Preston.
“The parents have the right to call an (Individualized Education Plan) team meeting at any time,” said Preston. “The parent can have that conversation with the school system. They can bring the IEP team together, and then make those individualized decisions based on the student’s need within the context of the current situation at their local school system.”
Preston said the education department will soon release updated guidance for parents and teachers to make sure daily lessons are accessible to students with disabilities. Included in this guidance is a “family tool box” so parents understand their rights have not changed when it comes to special needs education.
“Accessibility is really critical here,” said Preston. “There are specific considerations for virtual environments and we’ve released stuff on that.”
But putting policy into practice is easier said than done, said Clarence Osteen, a special education teacher in Jefferson Parish. Osteen said he foresees a good amount of speed bumps on the way to making the “new normal” of virtual and in-person teaching effective.
He said many teachers still are not comfortable teaching in front of a camera and many don’t know how to be engaging to students online, especially special needs students.
“What are the new classroom management skills?” asked Osteen. “We can do more of the immediate accommodations, but to really dive in and work one-on-one with a student is really hard.”
And even when special education teachers do become more skilled at teaching virtually, Osteen said only about half of his students have the technology to learn online.
“A lot of them would say, ‘Oh, we have internet.’ But when you dug deeper, you found out they were just using their data on their phones.” Osteen said. His students students using their phones only get a fraction of the learning experience that students using laptops or tablets get.
“I think schools are in a horrible position,” said Shawn Fleming, executive director of The Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council.
A virtual model could fail to keep students engaged, he said, and an in-person model could be unsafe.
“A lot of (special needs students) need instruction and services that are very personal, and people will have to be close to them,” said Fleming. “So there’s no way to duly serve kids with disabilities and avoid physical contact.”
Are you the parent of a special-needs student in a Louisiana public school? Let us know your concerns and how things are going for your family by emailing [email protected].