Despite some improvements, remote learning still disproportionately affects children with special needs

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB-TV) – In the spring, adjusting to remote learning was all new. 

School districts, families, and students alike had to learn on the fly how to do something that’d never been done before. 

Travis Tolbert has not been back in school yet.

Students with special needs may have suffered most of all at that time, with little access to the services and therapies they need. 

But virtual learning isn’t so new anymore. Still, some students with special needs students are stuck.

First grader Travis Tolbert is autistic and non-verbal. The Buffalo Public Schools student used to be able to spell his name without help. 

Yolanda Young with her son Travis

“With sight words, he needs assistance, when before, prior to March, he didn’t,” said his mother, Yolanda Young. 

Young is devastated by his regression. She says he hasn’t had the option to attend school in person yet. 

“It’s been a struggle because you know, you just want to make sure they don’t miss out on anything,” she said. “You want the best for them, and you advocate as much as you can, and I’ve been doing it for months, e-mail, phone call, mail, whichever way that I can, and it’s like, I’m always hitting a dead end.” 

It’s a struggle so many parents continue to feel, even those whose kids have had the return of some in-person learning or services, like for Melissa Leumer’s son. He’s a sixth grader who did get to return in-person two days a week this fall, but like many local school districts, is returning to all-virtual until the coronavirus infection rate goes down. 

“Sometimes I feel like when we’re doing the virtual sessions that he’s really not getting as much out of it because even though she’s on the screen with him…I’m always like, ‘Am I doing this right?’” She said. 

Leumer’s son has a personal aide when he’s in class at BOCES Maryvale. That person helps him stay on task when he struggles to focus. 

But at home, mom and dad are still working, and they have a younger son they have to help too. 

Leumer, who is also a support reading teacher, faces challenges as both a parent and educator. 

“I need to hear how every single kid pronounces a word or makes a mistake or whatever, and it’s very hard to do it virtually,” she said. 

She says she can tell students’ attention spans vary, and she and other teachers try to keep in mind they may have a lot going on in their own homes and may not necessarily have a quiet place to concentrate on a Zoom lesson. Her advice to parents: Try to remember it’s temporary. 

Jeff Weiss, an attorney with Harris Beach who specializes in K through 12 education and co-leads the law firm’s education team, says in the spring, there was an understanding that everyone could only do their best. Now, the expectations are higher. 

“The good school districts are paying attention to individual progress, and they’re going to keep close eyes on all kids in these alternative settings to see if what’s provided is working. And if the progress data shows it’s not working, they shouldn’t sit back and do nothing. They need to make changes. That could be more services, different types of services, bringing kids in more if they’re able,” Weiss said. 

Most parents of special needs students want their kids in school full-time. Springville is as close as it gets: Students with the highest needs (students in 8-1-1 and 12-1-1 classes) are back four days a week. However, all students will have to go back to virtual November 30 because Springville can’t yet meet the state’s required yellow-zone COVID testing burden. Superintendent Kimberly Moritz is still trying to get Springville approved as a testing site. 

“The most common feedback I get from parents is this real desire to be in person to the extent possible. I know that that’s how our teachers, our administrators feel. We really want to have our kids here as much as possible,” Moritz said. 

So when that’s not possible, how can parents best advocate for their children? 

“I think most parents, health issues aside, would want their kids in every day. And schools, they have to deal with individual situations and general situations,” Weiss said. “But it’s just a give and take, and communicate with the schools in terms of how the kids are performing, because a lack of progress by a student should trigger some form of change, whether that’s systemic change generally or individual change, that’s going to be the question for everybody to answer.” 

Viola is a student in the Southern Tier

The present and future are not all doom and gloom, and some parents have shared both their trials and triumphs. Avie Shawl’s daughter is an example of a child who regressed but is now quickly improving. 

This school year started virtual for her daughter Viola, who is seven. Viola is on the autism spectrum and has other disorders, too. Avie says the virtual weeks were some of the most trying in her family’s lives. 

“She, those two weeks, virtually learned nothing. I hate to say that. Her gen-ed teacher really tried, but it was not, like, she couldn’t engage,” Shawl said. 

But it was not for lack of effort on the part of the Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central District. Shawl says teachers and administrators regularly checked in on Viola, calling Avie to ask how things were going, and always asking what they could do to help, describing the district as “phenomenal.” 

Now, thankfully, Viola is back in school four days a week. 

“She’s thriving,” Shawl said. “She’s a very shy sweet little girl, but she’s starting to overcome these, and she’s feeling successful right now, and I hope we can keep on that track.” 

Mother Kelli Helmer felt differently about sending her daughter back to school and is sharing her successes at home. 

“School is not what it used to be. The school setting, I thought, would be traumatizing. Things that Mariah was able to do since kindergarten then were no longer going to allow,” said Helmer. 

She decided to keep her daughter, Mariah, remote, as Mariah might be upset not understanding why she would not be allowed to hug her teachers and might struggle with a change in structure when schools shut down again. 

Kelli Helmer and her daughter Mariah

Kelli was skeptical at first because Mariah is structured and hands on, but teachers and therapists have dropped equipment off at home, or she says they’ve told her what equipment she could buy herself to have at home. 

Helmer says West Seneca has been there for her family despite backlash the district faced. 

“We’re all in this together. There is not one parent who knows exactly what they’re doing right now. Someone asked me the other day about Thanksgiving. I said I’m focusing on today. Today is Tuesday,” Helmer said with a laugh. 

Moritz and Springville’s director of special educations, Katherine Townsend, say, in general, schools have overcome extraordinary challenges, but Moritz recognizes nothing will replace in-person learning. 

“I worry about regression, I worry about developmentally, what would those students be able to accomplish that were missing opportunities?” Moritz said. 

“It’s great, but it’s not the best that we can do. It’s the best we can do under the constraints we have, but it’s nothing like in-person, sit next to me, let me show you, let me help you,” Townsend said. “Watching a child holding a pen [gripping it with a fist] is totally different than actually manipulating their hands to show them how to hold the pen.” 

So how do you best help your child?  Weiss says, by law, children classified with special needs are entitled to FAPE: A free and appropriate public education. Under this year’s circumstances, your child could be owed something if he fell behind. 

“Whether services were provided or not, there might be a claim for compensatory services, and we’re seeing a lot of them not just like we might see them for the rest of the year,” Weiss said. 

Weiss says current IEPs were likely developed for the classroom setting. Those plans can and should evolve, he says, and that happens if parents and teachers communicate. 

It becomes harder when districts provide services through other agencies. 

“So we’re clear, whatever happens in that agency placement, whether it’s appropriate services, implementation or so on, the school district is responsible, so the school district is caught between a rock and a hard place if they have an agency that is unable or unwilling to fully implement the program,” Weiss said. 

 Then there’s the question: How do you measure progress through a screen? Moritz says good teachers have a million ways they’re watching their students, and again, both she and Weiss say regular communication can only benefit the student. 

Watch Part 2 of this story here:

Erica Brecher is an anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of her work here.

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