Students With Disabilities Struggle To Learn Remotely While many schools are continuing distance learning, educators want to do things differently this time for students who need special education services. Parents say the schools have to do better.

Students With Disabilities Struggle To Learn Remotely

Students With Disabilities Struggle To Learn Remotely

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While many schools are continuing distance learning, educators want to do things differently this time for students who need special education services. Parents say the schools have to do better.


Here in the U.S., more than 7 million schoolchildren receive special education services. But this spring, many of those vital services, like physical therapy, simply stopped. So what happens now with some districts planning to continue remote learning in the fall? Here's NPR's Cory Turner.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: For Sarah McLaren, who lives just outside Minneapolis, talking about the spring is painful. Her daughter struggles with auditory processing. McLaren says keeping up with teachers on an iPad was super hard for her third grader.

SARAH MCLAREN: They'd tell her, you know, look at this problem. Look at that problem. No, show me your worksheet. I mean, the teachers were doing the best they could. But all those rapid verbal directions just overwhelmed her.

TURNER: McLaren says her daughter went from loving school to dreading it.

MCLAREN: She would literally run away from the iPad and hide in the closet or under the bed.

TURNER: Julie Malone is a speech language pathologist in the San Diego area and says she tried to work with students remotely.

JULIE MALONE: I have never worked harder.

TURNER: In the spring, she says, that meant 16-hour days. Part of the problem - many therapy providers say they got little direction from school district leaders about how to deliver their services remotely.

MALONE: I think districts were completely consumed with what to do with the majority of their kids. And I think special ed is the harder one to tackle. And I think they left it to last. And it was a mistake.

TURNER: Or as Sarah Mclaren put it...

MCLAREN: There's an assumption that if we just get iPads to everyone, the kids will be OK. Well, some kids aren't going to be OK. And we need to talk about that.

TURNER: Julie Malone has been talking about that, helping her district choose a new platform to replace Zoom, one better suited to the learning needs of her students.

Elsewhere, though, a handful of lawsuits have already been filed by parents and advocates, arguing that schools broke federal disability law by providing insufficient services in the spring. If you talk to school superintendents, most will say they did their best.

DAVID JECK: It was like being pushed out of a window and growing your wings on the way down.

TURNER: David Jeck runs the schools in Fauquier County, Va. He says the pandemic turned his whole system for serving kids with disabilities on its ear. But Jeck says he is determined to do better this school year. His staff have reached out to every family with a child who received special education to talk through and update students' special learning plans. And though Jeck's schools will again be remote in the fall, he's making an exception for roughly 250 kids, the kids, he says, who simply cannot get what they need through a computer screen.

JECK: That's really the long and short of it. They need to be served in a face-to-face model. And so that's what we're going to do.

TURNER: Sarah Mclaren's district in Minnesota is doing something similar. And Mclaren is thrilled that her daughter will be heading back to a school building. But Kendra Mendoza in Providence, R.I., says she feels trapped. Her son Joshua has cerebral palsy and a cluster of other conditions that put him in fragile health. I spoke with them recently over Zoom.

KENDRA MENDOZA: His name's Cory. Can you say hi, Cory?

JOSHUA: Hi, Cory.

TURNER: Joshua loves school but got little of the therapy he needed this spring. Also, as a single mom, Mendoza needs him to be in school so she can work. But when she was told that he could go back this fall, Mendoza still struggled.

MENDOZA: How do I send him to school if it's going to be a health risk? One more mistake could land him in the hospital and potentially kill him.

TURNER: Mendoza says many children with severe disabilities aren't just immunocompromised. It's often hard for them to wear masks or keep socially distant. They may need help eating or using the bathroom. Their care is very physical, which puts them at greater risk. Still, Kendra Mendoza says she'll figure it out. It's other family she's worried about.

MENDOZA: What I have working in my favor is I’m stubborn. So I'm a glutton for punishment. But what about the mom that's ready to give up?

TURNER: Disability rights experts say this fall, schools have to do better for the parents who are angry or ready to give up, for the schools that know they could face legal consequences if they don't and most importantly, for the kids for whom remote learning wasn't just inconvenient or boring but a painful absence of vital care for months that could set them back for years. Cory Turner, NPR News.

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