MINNEAPOLIS – Lisa Juliar was determined when distance learning began last spring: she would do anything to offer her son the kind of one-on-one support he got at school.
But even with her help, Cooper, a senior at Mounds View High School, has big problems with distance learning. He has a rare chromosomal disorder called cri-du-chat that affects his speech and language, and he had trouble expressing himself during Zoom lessons. He sometimes gets so frustrated that he starts screaming, grabbing his mother’s hair, and even slamming the laptop.
“These are not behaviors that he had in school,” said Juliar. “It’s not that the teachers aren’t doing as much as they can, but distance learning just doesn’t work for my son.”
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The pandemic school year that has frustrated so many is proving nigh impossible for many of Minnesota’s 148,000 special needs students. Despite the creativity of teachers working to engage students online, the success of distance learning for students with special education often depends on the independence of the child or the support of the parents throughout the school day. Teachers and helpers are overwhelmed with the paperwork for changing learning models and find it more difficult to virtually assess the moods and needs of the students.
In a November executive order, Minnesota governor Tim Walz urged school districts to give priority to face-to-face teaching for students with disabilities. The state’s Safe Learning Plan allows schools to provide in-school support to special needs students when it is safe to do so, even if the district is on distance learning. However, it is up to the districts to decide whether to offer personal support at home.
Nevertheless, there are success stories. Distance learning has led some students with disabilities to find new ways to communicate their needs, and parents are forming closer partnerships with special education staff.
“There’s certainly a lot of frustration, but also so many dedicated parents and people in schools making sure these students succeed,” said Daron Korte, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education.
And something could change: Walz announced last month that elementary schools in Minnesota will be able to open for full face-to-face classes starting Jan. 18 if they meet safety requirements.
The ever-changing school year has prompted teachers and families to develop individual educational programs for distance learning, hybrid learning, and personal learning. Tracy Detloff, a middle school teacher of special education in the New London-Spicer School District in central Minnesota, said, “The current paperwork dealing with this pandemic and special education is insurmountable.”
On a recent school day, David Perry documented every time his 13-year-old son struggled with distance learning. Nico has Down syndrome and autism and mostly communicates non-verbally. Perry listened, recording the times Nico stopped engaging or communicating in ways that weren’t translated on screen. In the afternoon, his number reached 100.
“We as parents are pushed to talk about the things my son can’t do, and that’s just brutal,” Perry said. “It is true that he cannot type a password into the computer or open an email to get a zoom link. That only works if someone is actually in the room with him – if he has an aide or if I quit my job. ”
Earlier this month, the Perry Nico family hired personal hygiene assistants to also help him with distance learning in the Mounds View District, which is not currently contracting with in-home service providers.
Partnering with third-party vendors can lead to accountability issues and pay and qualification concerns, said Colin Sokolowski, a spokesman for Mounds View Schools. The district will review the option throughout the pandemic and focus on getting the students back as quickly and safely as possible, he said.
“I just want my son to be raised – that’s really my driving force,” said Perry.
Mounds View Schools are opening school buildings to some students, including Nico and Cooper, starting this month to help out in person with online learning four days a week. But Perry is concerned about day five of school week as well as possible COVID-19 exposure.
Juliar is concerned about Cooper’s future. At the age of 19, he should receive training on readiness for work in order to facilitate the transition into adulthood for special school students – but that’s all online too.
“We’re going to have a whole bunch of kids who can’t just recover,” she said. “Losing those months is so much bigger for her.”
Fights and solutions
Moving from personal to distance learning and back again has been difficult for students who are used to routine, said Erika Frison-ZayZay, who works with students in District 287, a specialized district that serves students on the West Subway with complex learning – and behavioral needs. If they were personal, the absence of staff due to quarantine or illness meant the students were constantly working with unfamiliar people. COVID-19 security measures meant that students could not use common spaces that were normally part of their day, such as the gym or the school library.
Frison-ZayZay is happy that many of her students have parents at home to keep them updated. But it’s still often an uphill battle to keep everyone focused.
“Students with disabilities are more successful with persistence,” she said. “Closing and opening personal remote changes – that’s hard for them.”
Despite the difficulties, distance learning has brought some unexpected benefits for special education. Brian Rappe, special education teacher at Nicollet Middle School in Burnsville, spent the school year with students who chose the district’s full-time distance learning option. He found that students are more willing to speak up when they need help.
Tara Tuchel, a speech / language pathologist at Stillwater Schools, has noticed the same thing, even with students who may have problems with verbal language.
Virtual learning has also strengthened their relationships with parents and meant more individualized strategies, she said. Creating fun virtual activities takes more time and problem-solving, but it’s worth seeing how it works, Tuchel said.
Susan Herrlein, the mother of a 6-year-old at Rutherford Elementary in Stillwater, said her daughter’s teachers taught her too.
“You helped us learn how to be a better parent,” said Herrlein. “Our daughter is nonverbal so she couldn’t come home to tell me how her day was – but now I can actually see her learning.”
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