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As the vast majority of schools in the U.S. move from the classroom to the computer, teachers and administrators have struggled to offer learning to special needs students. Schools are required to do so by federal law, which protects students with disabilities. But the coronavirus relief package paves the way for the Education Department to give states some leeway. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been talking to parents and teachers who are navigating an uncertain new reality.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: With school closed, every morning this week has begun the same way, with Marla Murasko (ph) getting her 14-year-old son Jacob dressed and ready for the day.
JACOB: I did the bed, Mommy.
MARLA MURASKO: You did your bed, honey? Thank you.
JACOB: I love you.
MURASKO: Love you, too.
NADWORNY: Next they head down to look at the colorful hour-by-hour schedule taped to the front of the fridge.
MURASKO: What's at 9 o'clock? Right here.
MURASKO: Oh, writing, OK.
NADWORNY: Jacob, who has Down syndrome, loves routine.
MURASKO: Are you excited about your day?
JACOB: Yes, we are.
MURASKO: Because Jacob's school outside Boston is closed until April 6, Jacob starts his lessons at 9 a.m., according to his schedule, down in the basement. And there's just one kind of big hiccup. Even though some of his teachers sent home packets to work on, there's no accommodations or modifications for him, so he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him.
NADWORNY: Jacob is in general education, but he has special help. In certain subjects like reading, he works with a different teacher, separate from the class.
MURASKO: It has been very frustrating for us. I mean, he can't look at a five-page worksheet and learn.
NADWORNY: Jacob needs things to be simplified, so Murasko found some worksheets online that helped break his readings down.
MURASKO: I have approached my day at this point with trying to figure out the positives, to be honest with you, because I can't keep staying in this negative arena of, when are they going to provide me something? So I've just been doing my own stuff.
NADWORNY: Across the country, school districts are struggling to figure out how to give students with special needs an appropriate education, now that they're closed due to coronavirus. They are legally obligated to do that under the Individuals with Disability Education Act or IDEA. But it's a big challenge on such a short time period.
ANN HIEBERT: Our district overall is implementing Google Classroom.
NADWORNY: Ann Hiebert is a special education teacher for the Ferguson-Florissant School District in the suburbs of St. Louis.
HIEBERT: But that doesn't work well for my students, since I have students with more significant needs.
NADWORNY: Her students have intellectual disabilities, including autism. Many of them are non-verbal, and some can't use technology independently. So Hiebert has been sending emails with videos of familiar songs, plus some packets home for students. But that's about it.
HIEBERT: You know, it's a gray area for everyone right now. I think everyone, administration included, is figuring this out as we go along.
NADWORNY: In an acknowledgment of the constraints districts are facing, the Education Department offered new flexibility, urging schools to not let the federal law get in the way of distance learning. Congress's relief package gives Secretary DeVos 30 days to waive additional parts of IDEA in order to provide schools with, quote, "limited flexibility." Some disability advocates say that flexibility makes them nervous.
STEPHANIE LANGER: We're talking about waiving a civil right for our most vulnerable people in our society, children who don't vote, who have no voice, who are relying on their parents to advocate for them.
NADWORNY: Stephanie Langer is a civil rights attorney with a focus on education. She worries this will let states and districts off the hook for providing accommodations, even if it's later, when students return to the classroom.
LANGER: If they know they won't be held accountable at the back end, they simply will not try. Having the requirements in place requires them to do something rather than nothing.
NADWORNY: There are successful approaches to special ed virtually.
JAMIE DESROCHERS: So pretty much everything that they can do on a brick-and-mortar school, we can do on a cyber.
NADWORNY: Jamie Desrochers is the director of special education at a small online charter school in Pennsylvania. It's all virtual, but using online tools, special education teachers can push into a live classroom or they can create breakout rooms and go one-on-one. If your school doesn't have the online software, she suggests a simple alternative. There is tons of learning potential in regular old household chores.
DESROCHERS: Cooking with your kids, you know, it's a great way to teach math.
NADWORNY: Marla Murasko, who's home with her son Jacob, has made this a big part of their days. Earlier this week, Jacob measured out the oil when they made popcorn.
MURASKO: And now we're going to pour it on. Go ahead. Pour it all over your popcorn, all over.
NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
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