Antwon Gibson’s public high school in Northeast Washington didn’t even attempt to teach his “independent living” class virtually this spring. The gregarious 18-year-old has an intellectual disability and reads and performs math below grade level. He’s been out of the classroom since schools closed in March and now requires more help from his family to break down multi-syllabic words.

Ayo Heinegg’s son, a rising sixth-grader in the District with dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is typically a high-performing student. But he struggled to keep up with his coursework on multiple online platforms and lost his confidence in the classroom.

And in Loudoun County, 8-year-old Theo Duran, who is autistic, struggles more to walk up the stairs or hold a crayon to write — all tasks he was making progress on before the coronavirus pandemic hit and shut down his school.

Parents across the country who have students with special education needs say the stakes are high if schools do not reopen soon. They say their children are not just falling behind academically but are missing developmental milestones and losing key skills necessary for an independent life.

In the conversations about whether to reopen school buildings — or even how to shape virtual learning — parents of special education students fear that the unique needs of their children are not being urgently considered. Their children are often in self-contained classrooms with just six students, and the parents believe there are ways to safely educate them offline, even if the entire student population isn’t ready to go back.

It’s a predicament that highlights just how complicated it will be to return to classrooms. Teachers — whose unions have been protesting the return to in-person classes — say this is the population of students who require the most hugs and comforting back rubs and who could struggle to follow social distancing and mask rules meant to limit the spread of the virus.

“His teachers and school really did an admirable job this spring. But it paled as a substitute for the level of education engagement that is really required for this group of children,” said Kevin McGilly, Gibson’s foster parent. “It’s not sustainable long term without significant harm to this student population.” 

The nation’s school districts are federally mandated to provide America’s seven million students with disabilities an education tailored to their individual needs under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA. Each qualifying child receives an IEP, or Individualized Education Program, which lays out the services the student is required to receive.

But receiving all those services was nearly impossible in the spring, when schools, overnight, shifted to remote learning. There had been no plans to deliver services like occupational or physical therapy to special education students, and parents, who had come to depend on schools to care and educate their children during the day, were suddenly at home with them, untrained and unable to fulfill an IEP.

With the summer to figure out virtual solutions, some districts say they have a better handle on how to help special education students in the fall, including having students meet with mental health, occupational and physical therapists online. Some states gave permission to ease IEP requirements in the hopes of making it easier for service providers to work virtually, said John Eisenberg, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Some states also have beefed up virtual training for teachers of special education students, he said.

But those methods will not work for all special education students, said Kristi Wilson, superintendent of the small Buckeye Elementary School District in Buckeye, Ariz., and the 2020 Arizona superintendent of the year.

“It is still an unknown in terms of how we are going to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children,” she said.

McGilly said he attempted to work with Gibson in the spring as closely as his teachers once did in the classroom, but their foster son didn’t want his parents to also be his teachers. Heinegg said it was a full-time job to keep her son on top of his assignments and paying attention in class. Duran can’t log on to the computer or type for himself, and his mother, Abby Duran, was worn down by facilitating all of his assignments and classes each day.

Parents of students with special education needs say they aren’t always equipped to help teachers fulfill their children’s IEP. If parents need to work, their child misses classes and meetings with specialists. Some parents said the virtual sessions were so ineffective that they just skipped them.

“It was extremely damaging to his self-esteem,” Heinegg said of her 11-year-old. “I have spent years and lots of energy making sure he loves learning, and that was destroyed. How do you undo that?”

Even for schools that specialize in teaching students with learning disabilities, the challenges with remote learning were profound.

When schools closed in March, St. Coletta Special Education Public Charter School moved swiftly to attempt to fulfill its students’ IEPs. The school in the nation’s capital — which serves 270 students of all ages with severe intellectual disabilities — moved its one-on-one sessions with students online. Physical therapists and speech therapists made online appointments with students.

Teachers instructed parents to include their children in tasks like grocery shopping and setting the dinner table so they could learn the independent living lessons they would typically get at school.

Despite the efforts, only about 50 percent of students participated in virtual learning. The other students received little special education services, though teachers reached out to them and posted all assignments online.

“Some parents really struggled, and we had a lot of challenges getting participation for our students, and that is obviously really concerning,” said Christie Mandeville, St. Coletta’s principal. “The challenge is what can we do? We are doing what we can online, and we try to work with families to make the schedule as flexible as possible.”

In the fall, Mandeville said the school will create a virtual learning component to each student’s IEP. For example, if a student’s IEP says that a child’s goal is to walk up a set of stairs but that child does not live in a house with stairs, the virtual learning plan may call for a student to step on and off a household object — a task that uses the same muscles as walking up stairs.

In the District’s traditional public school system, 18 percent of its 52,000 students receive special education services. Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the school system is providing special education teachers with additional training for online learning in the fall. The school system is also hosting a session for families so they know what to expect from online learning for their children with special needs.

And he said the school system will create a virtual learning addendum to each student’s IEP, which would be created with input from parents and teachers on how to implement a student’s special education plan virtually.

When schools do reopen, Ferebee has said he would prioritize getting students with special education needs as much time as possible in classrooms. In the meantime, Ferebee has vowed to make remote learning for all students in the fall more robust and structured, with daily schedules and live classes for students in every grade. The school system also plans to use fewer online platforms in response to parent and teacher criticisms.

In the spring, the U.S. Department of Education said that while districts were legally required to provide all IEP services to students with special needs, it did not want to stand in the way of good-faith efforts to do so. However, the department has not explained what would constitute a legitimate effort. It issued guidance in June for how schools can handle disputes with families over special education services, saying that states can extend the timeline on a case-by-case basis for resolving them.

Angela Morabito, press secretary for the department, said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will hold “accountable” any district that does not provide federally mandated services to students with IEPs. She did not, however, say exactly what that meant.

“The secretary has been consistent since the beginning of the outbreak: there is no excuse to not educate all children,” she said in an email. “The requirement to comply with federal civil rights law is not suspended as a result of covid.”

Still, until in-person learning begins, some parents are skeptical their children can be helped.

Ever since Ethan Spiros’s public school in Arizona closed in March, the special education student has been angrier and more physically aggressive, his mother said. Spiros — who was born with polymicrogyria, a condition that causes severe intellectual disabilities — hasn’t had physical therapy in months, and his walk has become more wobbly.

“He has no attention span and if the computer isn’t playing Sesame Street he slams the laptop down,” said his mother, Jennifer Spiros. “It’s been frustrating and a waste of time.”

In D.C., Gibson says the uncertainty over this next academic year is stressful. He has been participating in every virtual opportunity and is tired of all the phone calls from therapists and social workers. Even if it is just one day a week, he says he will be happy to return to a classroom.

“When school went virtual, it was hard to learn online — I had never done that before,” Gibson said. “I’m mad because I want to go to school. And I am hearing different days of when we go back to school. I miss my teachers, and I miss my friends.”

Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.