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'It's been horrid': Kids with disabilities struggle with school amid COVID-19

"Parents out there are seeing their kids just lose a year."
Collage of families inside a laptop screen
TODAY Illustration / Terah Boyd / Jim Skrobosinski / Jennifer Baumann / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Like everything else, education has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic: Millions of students have been staying home and learning online for months now. Some classrooms have returned to in-person learning, but safety precautions like masking and distancing have become major factors, and suspected or diagnosed cases of COVID-19 can close classrooms or entire schools for weeks.

While the changes are difficult for all students, children with disabilities have been hit particularly hard. For many, having a routine is an essential part of their day, and school routines have been completely interrupted by the pandemic. Other essential services, like speech and occupational therapies, have been altered, and with key social interaction skills going unused, many kids are battling regression and mental health difficulties.

Challenges with virtual learning

Jim Skrobosinski, whose wife, Sarah, spoke to TODAY Parents about their 7-year-old daughter Ellie in July, said he’s been watching his daughter, who has autism, struggle with virtual learning for months.

"They have lessons (online) but it is 10 minutes of somebody talking and telling a child with autism, verbally, what they're supposed to do, and then asking them to come back and verbally say what they did," Skrobosinski said of Ellie’s current public school special needs curriculum. "That's not how my kid learns, and that's not how she prefers to communicate or respond. It's not like she can replicate any peers that are sitting next to her. The verbal delivery of virtual school makes it not school."

The Michigan dad said that in-classroom supports, like paraprofessional educators, visual charts and other tools, had made it easier for his daughter to communicate with her teachers and peers, but after being out of the classroom for months, he believes second grade is "a wash" for Ellie.

Ellie and her dad, Jim SkrobosinskiCourtesy Jim Skrobosinski

“It's been bad. It's been horrid,” he said. “There's no consistency in the routine, and she needs a routine. Parents out there are seeing their kids just lose a year.”

Terah Boyd, who has two children with autism and one child who is neuroatypical, said virtual learning has failed her kids as well.

"They had an amazing teacher, but it was just misery for them, and it was a crash and burn," the North Carolina mom said. "They were doing busywork, they weren't learning anything, they were very disinterested. My daughter is great on the computer but my son (was not). He just completely shut down. There was no getting him to the computer."

Boyd said that her son, King, who is 14, would not engage with virtual learning at all. Meanwhile, her 13-year-old daughter, Queen, fell into a depression spurred on by the lack of social interaction and engagement.

"She was isolating herself, she wasn't coming out of her room, she wasn't talking, and we had to maneuver our way through that," she said. "It's very difficult. Hopefully as the pandemic lets up, they will be able to engage with others more."

The Boyd family outside their home in North Carolina. Courtesy Terah Boyd

Stephanie Hanrahan, a mom in Texas whose two young children have autism, said the lack of socialization during virtual learning had a noticeably negative impact on her 6-year-old daughter, Campbell.

"Being behind a screen all day was not working for her," Hanrahan said. "My husband and I both work, so there was a really big problem with getting to help with her virtual learning. She struggled, she regressed. ... The schools did try to give (therapies) to us virtually, but you can't really teach social skills behind the screen."

Trying new approaches

After struggling during the early months of the pandemic, many families with special needs children chose different approaches for the 2020-21 academic year. For Boyd, that meant homeschooling her two children with autism and supporting her third child with virtual school as much as possible before he can return to the classroom in late January.

"I pulled (King and Queen) out after I got the dose of what virtual learning was going to be like," she said of her decision to try homeschooling, noting that she’s seen a marked increase in their learning since she made the switch.

"It's really amazing to watch the lightbulb go off in their head as they grasp things that they hadn't been able to in school," she said. "In the classroom, my daughter was with kids who would scream sporadically, and one of her issues is noise. So when it would get like that, she would just shut down. She wasn't learning. So to see her actually get concepts and remember things I'm teaching her because her environment is conducive to her, it's really amazing."

However, her third child’s virtual learning has been a more difficult experience.

"That was such a disaster, and a disappointment for us," she said. "He was an A or B student, and he almost failed two subjects the first quarter."

Hanrahan also tried a whole new approach this academic year: She put her daughter Campbell in private school, which has allowed her to attend school in person five days a week. While the expense is difficult for her family, she said it’s been worth it.

"We're very lucky to have this year not cause terrible regression," Hanrahan said. "There's been a big push to keep up her skills and goals, because for many special needs families, academics is secondary: It means nothing if you can't order a burger in real life, right? ...

"But it is (still) difficult in the sense that teachers and therapists are really limited on how much they can do hands-on, because of COVID. It's hard to teach a kid social skills when you have to be in a tiny, isolated room where they can't interact with other kids."

The Hanrahan family was able to put their daughter Campbell in private school for the 2020-21 school year. Jennifer Baumann

The Skrobosinski family has not switched to homeschooling — both parents work — or tried private school. Instead, they’ve continued to do their best to keep up with Ellie's virtual learning via public school.

"She's been at home, and she hasn't had support," Skrobosinski said. "She's lost a lot of knowledge and we think she needs to repeat second grade. ... We're feeling horrible."

One thing that has remained consistent for the family is access to applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, which aims to help people with autism develop helpful real-world skills. Skrobosinski said he’s grateful that Ellie has been able to receive ABA therapy at an autism treatment center every day since the pandemic began — a move that has allowed her to maintain some skills. Ellie’s relationship with her ABA therapist also proved to be important: After seeing Ellie struggle emotionally, the therapist recommended bringing her to a mental health professional.

Jim Skrobosinski said that his daughter Ellie's emotional state has suffered during the pandemic. Jim Skrobosinski

"She's a happy kid normally, but now every cartoon or character she draws is crying," Skrobosinski said. "She thinks she's being left out. ... When we drive to the grocery store, she'd be looking out the window to see if there were cars at school. She'd be looking to see if there was anyone on the playground. There's a local school that isn't even her school where I take her to shoot basketballs, and she's looking in the window to see if there's kids in there."

Yet more new plans for the 2021-22 school year

While Hanrahan said she will have to return Campbell to her public school next year, Boyd and Skrobosinski both said their children will never be going back to their former classrooms.

"I could not possibly send them back," Boyd said, citing years of difficulties trying to get her children enough support before she started homeschooling them. "They need to be at the front of the class, not the back."

Skrobosinski said the difficulties of virtual learning have made him unlikely to return Ellie to her public school district again. Instead, the family plans to keep her enrolled in ABA therapy and try to enroll her in a private school.

"This is her last year in public school," Skrobosinski said. "It's a question of selling a car or doing whatever I can do to afford it. I am not going to waste another year of my kid's life."

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