In the age of this new and deadly virus, most American school districts have closed their doors, hoping remote learning can serve as a replacement in the coming weeks or even months. But few districts have figured out how to extend this online learning and other critical services to the 7 million children with disabilities.
Federal law requires school systems to provide students with disabilities an appropriate education. Unable to meet that requirement, some districts are opting not to offer online instruction to anyone because they are unable to offer it to everyone.
Meantime, parents are at home, struggling to care for their children, often while juggling work and care for siblings, with no idea how long the national experiment in mass home-schooling will last.
It’s daunting to even think about, said Michael McKenzie of Wilmette, Ill., who has an eighth-grade son who is on the autism spectrum. At school, his son has a huge support team: a vision therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, learning behavioral therapist and various teachers in the classroom, adaptive special education, and special subjects.
How will McKenzie and his wife replicate all that? “The best we can,” he said.
Distance education is challenging for other students, too. Some children don’t have computers or Internet access. Others must care for younger siblings, leaving little time for their own schoolwork. But students with disabilities have the power of federal law behind them.
“We can’t replicate the services in a traditional setting,” said Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District, outside Seattle, one of the first in the country to close. The district tried online learning for a week and concluded it was unable to offer students with significant disabilities the services they need, she said.
Fearful of losing federal funding, the district opted to end remote instruction for everyone while it searches for alternatives. Other school systems making similar calculations include those in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Md., and the Folsom Cordova Unified School District outside Sacramento.
In guidance published last week, the U.S. Education Department advised school systems of their legal requirement to provide equal educational access to students with disabilities, but said they do not have to accommodate children with disabilities if there’s no education underway for other students.
Then, on Saturday evening, alarmed that some districts were halting all remote learning, the department issued supplemental guidance saying there had been “a serious misunderstanding.” The agency said federal disability law should not be used to stop schools from offering distance learning to students and said districts should look for creative ways to deliver special-education services.
“No one wants to have learning coming to a halt across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak,” the agency said. It said the department “does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students online.”
The needs of students with disabilities vary. Some students struggle to use computers or need adaptive technology. Others depend on routines for mental stability, or rely on speech and occupational therapists who normally provide services during the school day. Many students have learning disabilities and need lessons to be modified, and some require adult support to focus on and complete their work.
Another issue: Some district websites and programs are not accessible to blind and deaf students.
In Williamson County, Tenn., Emily Williams’s school has been closed since March 6, but the district has yet to explain how her education will continue remotely. Emily is autistic, has epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Chronologically she is 21, but her development is that of a child.
At her public high school, she participates in a skills-building program where she has teachers who are trained to work with students like her. She needs constant supervision, which now falls to her mother, Patti Williams.
“She is real sweet in her disposition, but there is a lot of aggression,” her mother said. Sometimes, Emily plays peekaboo like a toddler; sometimes she head-butts. Not going to school has frustrated her. Emily says “go, go” as she gets her shoes and backpack and doesn’t understand why they aren’t leaving.
Using information she has gleaned from teachers, Emily’s mother plans to set up sorting tasks like those from school.
“But that requires me to be really proactive,” Williams said, “and it’s hard to be really proactive when you are in survival mode.”
Michael J. Hynes understands this better than most. He is superintendent of the Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island, and also the father of Sadie, a first-grader with Down syndrome. His district, and hers, are closed.
He said there is no way that schools can provide all of the necessary special education services to students when they are at home. “It’s nobody’s fault,” he said.
Sadie’s school provides a number of special services: occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and “everything in between,” he said. She is not getting them now.
“They are trying to do the best they can,” he said. “But we are in purgatory right now.” He and his wife, who is also an educator, are trying to keep some structure totheir daughter’s day, but they fear she will regress. And she’s so sad to be away from school.
“She has the class picture that everybody gets, and she carries it around with her,” he said. “I could cry even thinking about it.”
For Anne Marie Power of Alexandria, Va., being out of school means a disruption of routine, a huge challenge for her son, an eighth-grader with autism.
“One of his challenges is learning how to go with the flow, and this is the opposite of going with the flow,” she said. “This is just an assault on everything he understands.”
Her son attends the private Oakwood School in Alexandria, and his service team has been proactive in providing her with materials for home. But she said she cannot replace what they do.
She is not, she notes, a speech-language pathologist or an occupational therapist. “I’m just not. I’m a mom.”
Her big concern, she said, is that her son’s self-confidence will suffer. He had just reached a point, for the first time in his life, where he was feeling good about his work at school. “And then this happened,” she said.
Jocilyn Oyler lives in Lawrence, Kan., and hers was the first state to announce that schools will be closed through the academic year. Her two daughters both have special needs — especially her 11-year-old, Annika Vermooten.
Much of the care has been shifted to her 72-year-old mother-in-law, who has a heart condition. The elderly are most susceptible to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and experts have worried that closing schools will increase their exposure to the disease. But Oyler has little choice. She and her husband have to work.
“My daughters are quite excited at the moment. But they won’t be excited when I am trying to home-school them from 5 to 7 or 5 to 11 at night,” she said. “I am an English major turned attorney. I am terrible at algebra and geometry.”
Across the country, disability rights advocates are hearing stories about schools not providing what they are required to. The move to online learning motivated the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department to publish its guidance on district responsibilities.
“Services, programs and activities online must be accessible to individuals with disabilities unless equally effective alternative access is provided in another manner,” Ken Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a video explainer.
The agency initially said districts are off the hook if they are not offering instruction for any students. It then clarified its position to say districts would be wrong to stop all education and said there needed to be more flexibility in how the services are provided.
But with schools closed, serving these children is not easy, because so many need individualized plans and multiple services. Marcie Lipsitt, a disability rights activist in Michigan, said she has heard from many parents who see no accessible online education offered, and worry their children will regress.
“It’s devastating,” she said. As for school systems: “I’m seeing a free fall. They’re all chickens running around with their heads cut off. They don’t know what to do.”
Donna St. George contributed to this report.