Special Education COVID-19: My reflections

As a special education consultant and advocate who has spent 5 months (including with my family remote learning ) attending dozens or more Zoom/Microsoft Team meetings for my clients, serving on two advisory boards, and attending more professional seminars by excellent resources (ie: Massachusetts Advocates for Children and other advocacy groups), I wanted to share some of my impressions as we are now faced with going back to school in “the new normal”. 

The fabric of many of our families and friendships has been tested by the pandemic, but also by the stressors of remote learning.

I wish to preface this by stating I am the first person to say there is no pandemic playbook and this is challenging for everyone.  My passion, however, focuses on the learning of students for disabilities, with English Language Learning needs, and those with limited resources (ie: financial including but not limited to food insecurity, lack of technology, and lack of ability of parents to provide support because of these barriers and others).

If your child is a typical learner, going back is traumatizing enough under these conditions, especially having realistically LOST 3 months of learning already.  I know they may have not thrived with remote learning and I feel for them, too.

Moving forward to September, the state should extend unemployment if parents NEED to stay home (ie: their child can not medically be in the classroom setting or can’t wear a mask for 6 hours and follow the safety restrictions).  The playground as we know it is gone, the cafeteria as we know it no longer exists, social experiences are limited and those contribute to a decline in the social-emotional learning skills students require (did you know Massachusetts has Social Emotional Learning Frameworks?), and many schools have eliminated specials, including the arts. 

And that poor teacher! 😘  I DO worry about all (especially those in risk categories) and their stress. They should be considered essential workers. This has taught, I hope, everyone that.  Education is essential.  Educating those with disabilities is exceptionally challenging remotely.  Many teachers had little to no training in remote learning.  What is most confusing is that in the months after the April 4th school closure – end of the year declaration by Gov. Baker, some districts did not provide that professional development to their staff.  If you don’t give teachers the tools they need, you are doing a disservice to them and students.  Kudos to those who immediately started identifying and providing this training.

 MOUs and MOAs written in many districts last spring permitting teachers (trying to balance their own families, with no childcare options) to work less are the hidden secret in education in this pandemic.  I requested these contracts from 29 districts.  While most I believe were well-intentioned and most special education teachers and many general education teachers were working double or triple time, these agreements effected the services of students with disabilities.

Remote Learning Plans were a poorly thought out “fix”, they took the parent, with parent involvement being a key component of the IDEA, out of the equation in many cases.  I was impressed by the handful of districts I work collaboratively with who met on the RLPs and worked with parents, listened to their feedback, and adjusted as necessary.

On the contrary, there is no reason in team meeting after team meeting, the chairperson (often overworked, writing RLPs and IEPs, most dealing with frustrated parents and collaterals) would state my client could not access more (needed, even when the team agreed) services per the Remote Learning Plan “because of the MOU”.  This would be illegal in an IEP meeting. 

To hear a district or program, and this was not the norm for the students I work with but I saw it over and over again, state a high needs student can attend only 2 Zooms per week, have no related services even through tele-therapy, and was expected to do most work asynchronously (the pages of links made my clients want to pull their hair out) because of our contract was disconcerting. 

Parents tried the best they could, but they are not teachers.  They were never taught how to provide specially designed instruction or modify work. I can’t quantify the hours of calls and facetimes/zooms with overwhelmed parents, not wanting to “fail” (a term many of them used), often with tears and utter frustration.

If the State had provided emergency childcare for teachers and valued team members, they could work their full hours and kids with disabilities would not be limited to 2 or 3 sessions per week of inclusion “zooms” if they were accessing inclusion and there would not be 2 hours per week of office hours by appointment per teacher/related service provider.  Those daycare slots (numbering 10K) never had a census higher than approximately 2500 per the State. TEACHERS MATTER.

For children with more severe disabilities, this has been overall a disaster- as they require close contact. Many of these “high priority” (term per MA DESE advisories) students can not effectively learn (except *maybe* how to use Zoom!) remotely. 

For example, those with autism, who will be workers in the local economy, and who live with you next door or down the street, will need to be “untaught” the communication and social skills they have worked, many for years and years, because they can’t play with friends anymore. They can’t talk to other teachers. They can’t shake hands or give hi-fives, even if they sanitize or wash hands after. (I am however becoming a fan of elbow bumps).

There is good guidance (and I am not a scientist) from places that have opened up successfully (a friend teaches in Shanghai) and none of it requires mask-wearing for kids (or for teachers to basically split themselves in half and teach half in person and half remotely).  This comes at a time when student to student transmission is low, per contract tracing in those countries.

Not trying to create stress, but all those big bbqs and parties I’ve been seeing on my timeline the past weeks … it seems like some people forget there is a pandemic.

If kids go to school, many with developmental disabilities can’t wear masks. Many with medical issues like asthma or other health issues CAN’T. Those with disabilities are in desperate need of real instruction and most aren’t going much of anywhere now. 

It’s the behavior of families on weekends and this summer (or the end of it) which will factor into how safe schools will be for kids and teachers. 

Let folks choose remote home-school for their kids with or without disabilities.  Please don’t leave “high priority” students behind.  They NEED to be in school. Without school, they will fall further and further backwards and won’t be ready to enter the workplace – or even fully participate in their communities.

Governor Baker has done a lot right IMO. However, this is misguided at best and (further) harmful at worst. Kids can’t get a FAPE.  They haven’t gotten it since March.  Yes, there is NO pandemic playbook.  We need our students to be happy and healthy learners and there has be to some in-between.  We NEED to look at the places that are two months into this where schools went back and there were no further outbreaks. Yes, we need flexibility and to realize kids can not and should not be in front of computers 6 solid hours per day.  We need to hold parents accountable for what happens outside of school for now (until a vaccine), too.  We need to not FURTHER traumatize students (teachers and parents, too).   We need to not get too comfortable with “life as normal before March 13” now because it’s nice outside.

We also need to ensure students with ELL needs are learning.  Teachers should have been checking in.  Oftentimes, ELL learners and lack of resources go hand in hand. Some have technology, many don’t, many parents don’t and/or can’t access email, and many parents don’t speak English.  Many districts provided Chromebooks, some did not.  There is an equity issue with both special education, ELL, and the many kids who access in “brick and mortar school” both.

We need to provide a FAPE and I applaud the districts offering in-person ESY and the private day schools who have gone back.  Kudos for caring about our kids and for having ordered the PPE staff and supplies schools need, having the HVAC systems revamped to more safely circulate air, back in the spring.  Smart schools.

My young person with a disability is 21 with autism.  After 3 months, he is now DONE with online/remote “learning”.  I’m proud to say he has had 3 weeks of in-person learning, I feel safe sending him to his private special education day school, and he is happy to go. 

We need to ensure all students who need in-person instruction can safely receive it. Kids deserve to learn. How do we most effectively all work together to make that happen?

*This is not intended to be a legal analysis, as I am not an attorney.