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RALEIGH, NC – The past year has robbed many Americans of their lives, but it also robbed many special needs children like Jaiden Rodgers with the education they should have received.

6-year-old Jaiden, who has language and cognitive difficulties, has received most of his classes practically since last March, as schools closed to one-to-one classes during the coronavirus pandemic. It was a frustrating year for his mother, Laurel Farrar, as she watched Jaiden go backwards as he studied at her Chatham County home near Chapel Hill.

“I can’t imagine what he’s learned this year,” Farrar said in an interview with The News & Observer. “It’s like he lost rather than won.”

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Farrar’s experience in the Chatham County school system is not unique. Families of special needs education in North Carolina and the United States have spoken loudly about how pandemic school closings set their children back.

According to federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to free and appropriate public education. These students have an Individual Education Program (IEP) that provides housing that schools provide for study.

But the pandemic has resulted in school districts scaling back or canceling some special education services or switching to a virtual one.

“We are struggling with school districts that are unilaterally reducing the amount of specially designed instruction in a student’s IEP,” said Stacey Gahagan, a Durham attorney who represents Farrar, in an interview. “Some make flat-rate reductions.”

Melvin Diggs, executive director of Exceptional Children and Advanced and Intellectually Gifted Children for Chatham County Schools, said he was unable to discuss specific cases due to federal privacy laws. But he said the schools tried to make the most of a difficult situation.

“I know we are not perfect,” said Diggs in an interview. “I understand that parents have challenges and we have challenges. But we try to solve problems and ultimately I want to be known as an organization that responds to parents. “

“He needs this individual instruction”

Education in North Carolina saw a big change last March when Governor Roy Cooper ordered all public schools to be closed for personal instruction. It was a big change for the state’s 183,000 disabled students, who make up 12% of school enrollment.

When the state came in, Diggs said schools needed to quickly come up with a plan to help all students, especially vulnerable students with special needs. That included making sure students could go online to study virtually, he said.

“The biggest challenge was making sure the kids were safe,” said Diggs. “There were times when you had to run down parents and children.”

The assessments, which are part of the process of mentoring special needs and identifying new students, have been delayed. For example, the Wake County’s school system stopped evaluating special needs students last March.

Gahagan says the situation is made more complicated by the fact that North Carolina school districts can change IEP plans without parental consent.

The switch to purely virtual lessons exacerbated the already difficult year of kindergarten for Farrar. She said spring was a nightmare for her as she sought outside resources to try to replace what Jaiden got at school.

“He needs this individual instruction compared to the virtual instruction because there have been many times. In fact, he closes the computer 95% of the time because he cannot understand and learn that way.” Farrar said.

The final straw for Farrar came during a district-provided online speech therapy session this summer. Even though Jaiden had walked away from the computer, Farrar said the speech therapist spoke for eight minutes and told him what a good job he was doing.

“Where is this obligation to take action to ensure that a child can access the virtual instruction provided?” Said Gahagan. “From our point of view, it is not enough to say that the teacher was there virtually.”

“A really bleak situation for some of these families”

In July last year, a national class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of special needs students to force schools to give face-to-face tuition. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Many special education students receive limited or no personal tuition. The post-holiday COVID-19 spike resulted in several districts, including Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, being forced to suspend face-to-face classes until at least mid-February.

The state’s Republican lawmakers have announced plans to introduce laws requiring school districts to offer face-to-face tuition, The News & Observer reported.

When returning to face-to-face classes, students were required to wear face covers. However, there are exceptions, e.g. B. for students who cannot wear them for health or behavioral reasons.

Gahagan said some schools are refusing to grant the mask exemptions to students with disabilities.

“It’s a really bleak situation for some of these families,” said Gahagan. “If you’re supposed to have a mask exemption and it’s denied and public school is your only option, what is your current option?”

Chatham County has been offering students two days a week in-person tuition since October.

The days Jaiden attended first grade classes at Chatham Grove Elementary School were a godsend for Farrar.

“He’s ready and willing to learn,” said Farrar. “He is very motivated to learn. I could only see it sprout. “

But Jaiden still has online classes three days a week.

Virtual services for special school students

Diggs said Chatham County is now in a better position than last spring to offer virtual services to special school students.

One of the biggest changes, Diggs said, is that Chatham became the first county in the state to take advantage of PresenceLearning, an online program designed specifically for students with special education. He said the program allowed teachers to interact with their students online and evaluate their development.

While nothing can replace a personal teacher, according to Diggs, the pandemic has shown that technology can be used creatively to help students learn.

“Some services have to be performed in person, but there are many services that have been provided and continue to be provided virtually,” said Diggs.

Farrar is not a fan of PresenceLearning or any of the other online services offered to her son.

“At the end of the day, he’s still behind a computer screen,” Farrar said. “It doesn’t help him.”

Farrar works from home but says it is difficult to do her job as a health programs coordinator when she has to help Jaiden too.

“It’s very difficult and I often fall behind,” said Farrar. “I just do my best. Sometimes my work has to be neglected because my children are my first priority. “

Almost a year after the pandemic began, Gahagan said employers were not so willing to give workers the time to help their children with virtual learning. She says the solution is to get students, especially students with special needs, back into daily face-to-face classes.

“These students had problems before the pandemic”

The long-term impact of the pandemic on the education of students with disabilities is not yet known.

Diggs said some special needs students will see growth over the past year with technology complementing what teachers have to offer.

“Certainly distance learning is not a way to fully support a particular child, but I think there will be a lot more technology used to support learning before and since COVID,” said Diggs.

But Gahagan, who works with families of special education students across the state, says some students may not fully recover from the time they lost over the past year. She said school districts could start compensating for lost learning if IEPs weren’t met.

“Our most vulnerable and marginalized communities have been hardest hit by these school closings, and these students had problems before the pandemic and have the least resilience to come back,” Gahagan said.

What Farrar and many parents with special education say they want is a return to daily in-person teaching. However, she is concerned that it might not even happen in the next school year.

“They may do all they can, but if they do all they can, children with special needs should be allowed to go to school every day if they are open,” Farrar said.

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