Pandemic Takes a Toll on Students with Special Needs

The pandemic turned K-12 education upside down. No one has felt the impact more than students with special needs.

Kathy Lynn Gray
Dipti Patel and her son, Mrunal

Mrunal Patel hasn’t gone to school in person since March. He loves it. 

“But we did not love it,” says his mother, Dipti Patel.

Her son, 14, has Down syndrome, and months of all-virtual learning because of COVID-19 have taken a toll on his education. His mother says he’s speaking less and is falling behind, despite taking classes five days a week online. 

His story is achingly familiar to many parents and teachers of children with special needs. While the pandemic has been difficult for families and educators of all school-age students, those with disabilities have been hit especially hard. “Families who have children with extra educational needs are struggling even more to meet their needs,” says Kari Jones, president and CEO of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio.

The issue is a significant one. According to the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities’ most recentOhio Special Education Profile, 15.7 percent of the state’s 1.7 million public school students were identified as having disabilities in the 2017-18 school year. That’s nearly one in six students.

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Before COVID, students with special needs often had an in-class aide and pullout sessions with physical, speech or occupational therapists. Most had teachers and classmates who were physically present in their classrooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums and playgrounds. 

Last school year, Mrunal was in seventh grade at Berkshire Middle School in the Olentangy Local School District. He attended science, social studies and art classes with his peers, had math and language arts either in a small group or one-on-one, and had speech, physical and occupational therapy sessions. An aide helped him in some classes. An individual education plan, or IEP, detailed the education the district was legally required to supply. 

Then, in March, all schools went virtual. Teachers scrambled to figure out how to teach from a computer, students tried to adapt to a new way of learning, and parents tried to figure out how to juggle work with the needs of their homebound children. 

Marburn Academy, a private school that educates nearly 300 children with dyslexia, attention difficulties and other learning challenges, held online classes that prioritized math and language arts, says Jennifer Martin-Gledhill, associate head of school. 

“COVID disrupted our life structures, which has an impact on everyone but an even more profound impact on students who learn differently,” Martin-Gledhill says. “Students with math or reading or organizational difficulties will be disproportionately affected anyway. There’s more for them to lose because they’re trying to catch up anyway in a normal year.”

She says Marburn teachers didn’t cover everything they’d normally cover last year, but they’ve kept track of those gaps so they can be made up in the future. The school offeredsummer learning opportunities in the form of book clubs and guided math, as well as speech language services.

In the fall, Ohio school districts started the year in a variety of ways. Some children with special needs had in-person classes, but many did not. Marburn began in-school classes in August, with a livestreaming option for students who needed to remain home. 

Mrunal Patel and his tutor, Angela Allen

At school at Marburn, everyone wears masks, social distancing is enforced, classrooms and therapy areas are sanitized regularly, and teachers rather than students move from room to room whenever possible, Martin-Gledhill says. Special-services teachers, such as speech therapists, see students in one-on-one, in-person sessions but also use iPads to make up for the lack of close physical contact.

“It Was Total Chaos”

In the Westerville City School District, the preschool program at the Early Learning Center has reopened for in-school classes. 

That’s been a relief for parents like Carey Eash of Westerville. She and her husband, Ben, have two children in high school, one in fourth grade and 4-year-old twins, Judah and Olivia, in preschool. Olivia has Down syndrome and has been attending the preschool program since she was 3. Judah attended with her as a peer model. 

Before the pandemic, Olivia was in school four mornings a week, had an aide and received physical, speech and occupational therapy, as well as services from a teacher trained in adaptive physical education. When COVID hit, “We were on our own,” says Eash. Teachers sent emails with suggested activities, but Olivia couldn’t manage the virtual learning that was offered. Eash and her husband, who is working full time from home, took turns caring for Olivia and Judah. “It was total chaos,” she says. “We did our best, but there was definitely a gap in service.”

When the new school year began, Westerville schools initially continued with remote learning, a huge disappointment for Eash. At one point, Olivia went back to school for one hour a week. Finally, in October, the district switched to partial in-school classes for all students and half-day preschool. Peer models were discontinued to keep classes small, so the Eashes found another preschool for Judah. “It’s been trial and error,” says Eash, who worked 12 hours a week before the pandemic but cut back to six to eight hours a week to help her children. 

Jack Fette, chief academic officer for Olentangy schools, says district officials are constantly evaluating how programs are working during the pandemic. The district started the school year on Aug. 31 by offering a choice of all-virtual classes or a hybrid model (in-school some days, online others). Students with disabilities and special needs have the option of attending class in person five days a week. 

Because Mrunal does better with a consistent learning model and has Type 1 diabetes—a risk factor in COVID-19 patients—his mother felt she had no choice but to keep him in virtual classes. 

“Students have to find the attendance model that works best for them,” Fette says. “One of the biggest drivers the district takes into consideration is the nature of the interventions the student requires.” How much executive function a student has and the availability of help are other considerations. “Attendance is a major factor with online learning, getting the child in front of the teacher,” he says. “If a child struggles with that, it becomes difficult for our teachers to provide the intervention.”

Feedback from parents of children with special needs has been “across the board,” Fette says, ranging from being thrilled with teachers’ efforts to being frustrated with the technology.

Some Relief

In Upper Arlington, some parents were so frustrated they sued the school board in a push to have the district begin in-person classes. Four of the 12 students whose parents sued had IEPs.

In August, the school board announced it would offer certain students with special needs in-person instruction five days a week. In September, a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge ruled that the parents of the students with IEPs had to seek administrative help through the district for their educational needs before pursuing a court case. 

One saving grace for the Eashes and the Patels has been a new Down Syndrome Association program that pays for part-time aides.

“We started the program in direct response to feedback from families,” Jones says. “I thought, ‘If this isn’t a rainy day, I don’t know what is.’ It’s no knock on the school districts, but they can’t afford to have aides go sit next to these students at home. So we wanted to offer that service, to keep children on track.”

The Supplemental Learning Initiative helps children with Down syndrome who are in hybrid or virtual learning. Parents, who must meet income qualifications, choose a helper through the online Teach4Hire platform. 

For Mrunal, that means two hours of daily, one-on-one help with virtual learning five days a week. Olivia’s helper comes eight hours a week and has helped her learn to ride a tricycle and use scissors, among other skills. 

“It’s such a relief,” Eash says. “We couldn’t afford to pay someone ourselves to come into our home, but now I feel like we can operate in some kind of normal again.”

That relief may spread to other families. In late October, Gov. Mike DeWine announced a state program to provide $1,500 grants to children with disabilities who are learning remotely. The program, Learning Aid Ohio, would pay for tutoring and other needs.

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.