Ever since the onset of COVID-19 last spring, many students and parents have expressed frustration with the seemingly lackluster efforts to get kids back into the classroom.
For children with learning disabilities and their parents, these frustrations have only been amplified, with many saying that the virtual learning environment is unfit to meet those students’ needs.
Janae Rogers, who was a new parent to Northshore School District, has a second grader with sensory issues and communication delays and said remote learning has not been even close to adequate.
“We might be in the same storm, but we're in different boats,” she said.
Rogers and her family moved to Washington state the day before the first lockdown happened. She said her two kids finished out the school year virtually through their previous school in Arizona.
Her son, who requires an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), floundered in a virtual setting, she said, and there were lots of temper tantrums at the end of last year.
“We really struggled to get him engaged,” she said. “He just wasn't understanding. He can handle a one-on-one interaction virtually, but a one-to-many was really difficult and challenging for him.”
When it comes to screen time, she noted, excessive amounts really impact his mood. She realized from the get-go that learning new concepts by screen was never going to work for her son.
Upon the return to school last fall, she elected to homeschool her young children until some form of in-person instruction was available. Rogers said she did not expect distance learning to last so long. In fact, she was certain the district would make much faster accommodations for children with learning disabilities.
“My concern is that all of these kids who literally cannot access education in the virtual classroom have been completely ignored all year long and wishes have not been heard,” she said.
Rogers said it feels like the school district has not made enough efforts to address these kids who are struggling to learn.
According to Lisa Youngblood Hall, chief communications and experience officer for the district, IEP teams have been meeting throughout the pandemic to address student needs and parent concerns.
“Special education teachers and related service providers across our district are working hard to provide the best possible in-person, synchronous and asynchronous learning for students with IEPs, while still following health and safety guidelines,” she said. “This is important for maintaining healthy and safe in-person learning environments within our schools.”
Rogers acknowledged the exceptional fortune and privilege she has as a stay-at-home mother and makeshift teacher. Currently teaching both kindergarten and second grade lessons at home, she alternates between students to provide one-on-one instruction.
“At the end of the day, I feel like my children are not the ones who've suffered,” she said, referring to the distressing impacts of remote learning on other families.
There are approximately 143,000 students in Washington state who receive special education and related services, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website. The feeling that remote learning is harmful to students with special needs is widespread. Last August, three families of students with disabilities from Thurston, Pierce and King counties sued the state over its emergency rules adopted due to the pandemic, claiming they violated the right to basic education.
For Rogers, she also has two younger children who have had to tolerate more independent play than normally expected of them, she said. While that has been a disadvantage, she added, the most devastating sacrifice has been the lack of socialization that is so important for young children.
“Homeschooling has been a real blessing to me, and yet there's a real world out there,” she said. “I can't keep my kids in a bubble at my house forever.”
She wants her kids to know what it’s like to get direction and correction from other adults. Rogers said she needs them to have interactions on a playground to learn about boundaries and social acceptance. They are missing out on such a significant portion of their development, she said.
When moving away from their home state, Rogers said, she promised her kids that they would make new friends. But the pandemic has made that possibility harder to imagine. She has felt “completely boxed out of any opportunities to meet people,” she added.
“My son brings up every single day how much he wants to move back home and how much he wants to move back to his friends,” she said. “I mean if I could drop everything and move away, I would. I absolutely would. But we're here now, and we don't have the option to just leave.”
Rogers said the school district has really damaged its reputation in her eyes over the last year.
Rogers said she's had great experiences with the staff at the district, and she'd like to return, but is strongly considering private school if major changes aren't made.
Another former NSD parent, who asked not to be named, has struggled with remote learning for all three of her children. As a full-time working parent, she realized she didn't have enough time to give her children the amount of help and support that they needed in instruction. Additionally, she had concerns about the excessive amount of time being spent on screens.
“This is not the education I want for my children,” she said.
At the end of June, she pulled her two younger kids out of public school and started homeschool instruction. She claims the content being provided at their school was inadequate for students on an IEP.
She said her son had just been diagnosed with a learning disability when COVID-19 first hit. It wasn’t until October that a plan for his education actually got addressed and evaluated, she said.
For students with IEPs, the district offers 30-minute Zoom services for subjects related to reading, social-emotional, speech, writing and more. However, the mother said back-to-back meetings over a screen were not particularly beneficial.
“The way they are delivering this is not helping him,” she said. “What actually helped was getting one-on-one attention where we could sit with him.”
She said this, unfortunately, is the story of what happens with many families in NSD. In talking with other parents, she believes this issue is not necessarily new in the district. The bigger problem relates to IEPs and special education in general, she noted, and the pandemic only made matters worse.
Now with very little confidence and trust in the district, she plans to send all three children to private school next year. She is willing to do this for her kids despite fears about finances and time, she noted.
“We just can't wait anymore,” she said. “We care too much about their education and their growth.”