With schools closed, parents worry kids in special education will fall behind

Parents with children in special education are wondering how to cope without services they rely on.
/ Source: TODAY

As the mother of four children, Maya Brown-Zimmerman wondered what home schooling would be like when Ohio suspended classes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To add to the fears that many parents share about it, her three school-age children all receive special education services.

“There is a reason I don’t home school my kids,” Brown-Zimmerman, 35, of Cleveland, told TODAY Parents. “Trying to get the schoolwork done and taking into account for their behavioral needs, it’s not going to be possible.”

When Maya Brown-Zimmerman learned that she would be teaching her three school-aged children during the school shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, she worried how she could teach things like math to children with individualized education plans and 504 accommodations. Courtesy Maya Brown-Zimmerman

All three have different diagnoses and receive various levels of service from the school. Miles, 11, has anxiety and sensory processing disorder, and a 504 plan, which allows extra time to complete assignments. He also participates in a social skills group that helps him learn communication and coping. Julian, 9, has Marfan syndrome, so he types instead of writing, and has a physical accommodation because of his wheelchair. Ruby, 5, has autism and has speech therapy and behavioral goals to accomplish.

“Social skills had made a big difference for Miles,” she said. “He has really been thriving and Ruby has been starting to make improvements.”

While Ohio schools are closed until April 3, Brown-Zimmerman expects them to be shuttered for the rest of the year. The school put assignments up online and sent general educational information, but Brown-Zimmerman received little about what services would be available for her children. She worries that without the special education services her children might lose skills.

“There have been a lot of questions about what is special education going to look like if we don’t go back to school,” she said. “It is not going to be possible to (provide) what they have at school.”

Miles, 11, and Julian, 9, have different educational needs and their mom wonder how she can prevent them from losing skills as she teaches them. Courtesy Maya Brown-Zimmerman

Brown-Zimmerman and parents like her across the country are concerned about their children who need special education. And, a new fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Education adds to their fears.

“During this national emergency, schools may not be able to provide all services in the same manner they are typically provided,” the memo stated. “It may be unfeasible or unsafe for some institutions, during current emergency school closures, to provide hands-on physical therapy, occupational therapy, or tactile sign language educational services.”

The memo says the law is “flexible” during crisis.

Peter Witzler’s son Jackson, 4, was born with spina bifida, and early therapies and intervention made it possible for him to enter an integrative pre-K school program. There, he accesses physical therapy and occupational therapy. When the Montgomery County, Maryland, district announced it was closing its schools, Witzler didn’t know how he and his wife, Lisa, could make up for the lost services.

“It’s not just the PT sessions that he would get twice a week, but it's also having a special educator there, a trained professional, that can adapt the lessons and knows him and knows how to make sure he can access the curriculum,” the 40-year-old union employee told TODAY. “One on one time, that was really important to his development.”

Peter and Lisa Witzler's son has spina bifida and has benefited from an intensive pre-k program at his school. Now that schools are closed, they're trying tele-physical therapy but worry Jackson, 4, might lose skills without the regularly scheduled interventions. Courtesy Peter Witzler

Jackson has started virtual physical therapy, but the family has yet to hear from the district about his special education services.

“We have not received anything specific,” Lisa, 38, told TODAY Parents. “He is more likely to have educational challenges because of his physical needs and children with spina bifida have delays in language and math. We worked really hard to try to put in place ways for him not to have the challenges … and now we worry.”

Daya Chaney Webb shares that concern. Her son Sam, 16, has autism and has been struggling with the lax schedule of home schooling and social distancing. But she wonders what happens if he experiences a crisis.

“A lot of families experience a gap in services for intermediate care,” the 44-year-old legislative advocate from Towson, Maryland, told TODAY Parents.

Daya Chaney Webb's 16-year-old son, Sam, receives special education services. While he is adjusting to the new home schooling schedule OK for now, she wonders what options they will have if he needs some sort of intervention. Courtesy Daya Chaney Webb

While Sam seemed to adjust well to the schedule change at first, she worries about what she will do if he starts to panic and needs crisis intervention. Often his school offers this sort of support but she now thinks that she might have to take him to an emergency room or call the police. And she knows both of these organizations are providing important support to people with COVID-19.

“There will probably be a day where I just don’t know what to do,” she said. “We can’t predict what his emotional needs might be.”

The Witzler family takes a hike as they social distance to slow the spread of COVID-19. Courtesy Peter Witzler

Traci Arway is a special education teacher in Ohio on special assignment where she trains other special education teachers. She says her heart is breaking because she can't be there for her students.

"We're absolutely worried about all those same things," Arway, who has taught special education for 19 years, told TODAY. "It's hard emotionally because most of us have had our students for multiple years. We're really connected with them and it's just really hard emotionally not to be able to do what we know they need."

Arway said that teachers are often receiving information about ongoing education piecemeal, making it hard to guide their students.

"There was no direction," she said, "because this has never been done before."

While she and other teachers have been calling families to provide support, she understands it's not the same. Arway knows that modifying a lesson for a student with an IEP is challenging but she encourages parents to be kind to themselves and think of the lived experiences they can give their children.

"Do Zoom meetings so they're still working on their social skills," she said. "Go outside and play and work on those gross motor things, do those online yoga videos. Have them either typing or handwriting so that you're getting (practice) with those fine motor skills."

Arway says this shows how essential schools are.

"Society's learning the importance of the school building and what happens in that building," she said.

The Witzlers agree.

“It’s important that kids are getting services through the school system,” Peter Witzler said. “It's an educational issue. It's also a human rights issue. We have national legislation that generations before fought for so Jackson can get these services.”