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With Schools Closed, Kids With Disabilities Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Updated at 9:31 a.m. ET

With school closed, Marla Murasko begins her morning getting her 14-year-old son, Jacob, dressed and ready for the day. They have a daily check-in: How are you doing? How are you feeling? Next, they consult the colorful, hourly schedule she has pinned on the fridge.

Jacob, who has Down syndrome, loves routine. So this daily routine is important. Schools in Hopkinton, Mass., are closed until May 4th, so Jacob's morning academic lesson — which according to the schedule starts at 9 a.m. — has been temporarily moved to the basement.

But there's been one big hiccup to all this: What, exactly, to learn during these at-home sessions? Some of Jacob's teachers have sent packets home — one, for a science class, includes a video and a worksheet on wolves — but teachers haven't included any of the modifications, or "accommodations" he normally gets that are designed to adapt the lessons to his learning style. Normally, Jacob is in a general education classroom, with special help. In some subjects, like reading and math, he works with different teachers and sometimes does different lessons.

"It has been very frustrating for us," says Murasko, "he can't look at a five-page worksheet and learn. He needs it very simplified in order for him to learn it. If there's no accommodations or modifications for him, he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him." So Murasko, who insists she is not and has never been a teacher, has had to get creative. She found some worksheets online that help break down readings into Who, What, Where, When and Why? She says they're helping.

"I'll be honest with you, I've approached my day at this point with trying to figure out the positives," she says, "because I can't keep staying in this negative arena of when are they going to provide me something?"

As the vast majority of schools in the U.S. have transitioned from the classroom to the computer — teachers and administrators have struggled to offer learning to special needs students. The Hopkinton school district, where Jacob attends, did not respond to requests for comment on how it's handling the needs of students in special education.

Some districts have plowed ahead with holding one-on-one lessons over software like Zoom and virtual meetings to discuss the individualized education plans — known as IEPs — that are required for students in special education. Others have put all learning on a pause, as they figure out how to use distance learning to serve all students — not just those with disabilities but also those who don't have computers or high-speed internet.

As we've reported, schools have had to move online within a very short time frame, often without extra resources and very little training.

An estimated 14% of public school students receive special education services in the U.S. The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act ensures that those children have a right to a free, appropriate public education whenever and wherever schools are operating.

"Our district overall is implementing Google Classroom," explains Ann Hiebert, a special education teacher for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in the suburbs of St. Louis, "but that doesn't work well for my students, since I have students with more significant needs."

Her students have intellectual disabilities, including autism. Many are non-verbal, and some struggle with writing and typing and can't use technology independently.

"So all of these things that are out there aren't really going to be the best option for my kids," Hiebert says. She has been sending emails with videos of her classes' morning routine — they include familiar songs and pictures of their classroom calendar. "Routine is very important to my students," she says. She sent packets home for students, but she's "still trying to figure out ways that I can have meaningful content for them."

An urging to stay flexible

On Saturday, the U.S. Education Department announced it was giving schools flexibility in interpreting IDEA, saying that complying with the law, "should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction."

Jeanne Allen, who founded the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group that promotes school choice, said she was relieved to get the guidance, as there's been, "confusion about what schools, school districts and educators were permitted to do." She acknowledges that there are concerns about equity, but argues that schools should be looking to ed tech innovators and seeking creative solutions, rather than putting a hold on all learning.

"The law does not say if you don't educate every single person today in real time, you're going to get penalized," she maintains, "You don't stop schools and leaders from educating students to find the perfect solution."

A new federal relief package, which President Trump signed into law on Friday, offers Education Secretary Betsy DeVos the opportunity to go one step further: She now has 30 days to seek waivers for additional provisions of IDEA in order to provide schools with "limited flexibility."

This provision makes disability advocates nervous. "We're talking about waiving a civil right for our most vulnerable people in our society, children who don't vote, who have no voice, who are relying on their parents to advocate for them," says Stephanie Langer, a Florida civil rights attorney who focuses on education and disability.

She worries that if the federal government lets states and districts off the hook for providing accommodations for students with disabilities, schools and teachers won't even try. "If they know they won't be held accountable at the back end, they simply will not try," Langer maintains. "Having the requirements in place requires schools to do something rather than nothing, even if it's not perfect."

In the meantime, it's really up to parents.

For the first few days of virtual learning, Ann Hiebert says she was focused on how to adapt lessons for her students, but in recent days she has shifted her thinking. Now, she says, "I'm trying to be more of a resource to parents." She's planning on making videos — with help from her own son, who is also home from school — to demonstrate to parents how she works with students in class, so parents can model her movements.

"Parents have now become the teacher, the therapist, the advocate. They are everybody all in one," says Catherine Whitcher, who works with both families and school districts to craft IEPs. "The teachers have really started to flip their thinking of, 'How can I support the parents and what they're doing during this time?' "

Whitcher says parents are stressed out because they're worried their special-needs child isn't going to make academic progress at home, but she argues that's not where the focus should be for families. "Right now, we need to stabilize as human beings inside of our homes. It's about life skills. It's about community. It's about connection."

She says the time spent over video chat, or at home, is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to actually get to know the students in the context of their family.

Lessons from a virtual school

There are schools with extensive experience teaching online, including a number of virtual charter schools. "All of our instruction has always been delivered online," says Jamie Desrochers, the director of special education at the PA Distance Learning Charter School in Pennsylvania. "Our special ed teachers, pretty much everything that they can do in a brick and mortar school, we can do on a cyber." The only services they normally do in-person are things like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, but they have partnerships with companies like PresenceLearning that offer these services over video chat, and are leaning on them even more now.

When everything is through a computer, Desrochers says, teachers "have to be that much more animated to get the kids' attention." Sometimes teachers wear different silly hats and they ask lots of questions about the students' living environment. "The kids love to show off their pet," she says. "Giving the students an opportunity to do a show-and-tell online gets them engaged and builds that relationship."

For special education teachers adapting to a new virtual reality, Desrochers suggests making sure lessons connect to real life. And she urges teachers and parents to lean into the tools and objects students have in the home.

For example, if you'd use blocks for counting in the classroom, use something like pasta. For a lesson about surface area, have students count how many tiles are in the kitchen, or how many steps it takes to get from one side of the room to the other. And for parents, she adds, don't forget about household chores: "Cooking with your kids, is a great way to teach math."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.