'How are we going to do this?': Students with special needs could slip behind

Without in-person instruction and therapy, students and their families worry about regression

Four teenagers use tablets to do work as they sit at a table.
From left, Amos Spring, Roman Garza and Asher Spring use apps on tablets during distance learning at home, as Audrey Spring takes part in a video chat.
Courtesy of Leah Spring

Leah Spring is mother to seven children with special needs ranging from Down syndrome to autism. She sees herself as ultra-organized and capable, but the last few weeks of distance learning have been far from easy.

“The first day was rough,” Spring said. “I cried about five times going, ‘How are we going to do this, and for how long are we going to do this? And I don’t really want to do this.’” 

More than 16 percent of Minnesota’s public school students — or roughly 140,000 kids — receive special education services. Schools are legally required to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, and state education officials have encouraged schools to continue providing instruction and services to these students while avoiding in-person interactions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

For many parents, teachers and special education students, the attempt to continue distance learning at home without in-person support has been a herculean task. 

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“We’re being the teacher, the speech therapist, the occupational therapist, the physical therapist, the nurse, the everything simultaneously right now,” Spring said.

After the first day’s stress of trying to handle all the separate emails, passwords and Zoom calls involved in her kids’ new school regimen — while dealing with the screaming and crying of kids unable to understand what was happening — Spring knew things had to change.

She moved all the furniture out of her living room and turned it into a school room. She contacted her kids’ teachers and asked them to organize and streamline communications. 

A chain of construction paper with dates written on them.
A paper chain features the dates Leah Spring and her children have been isolated. They plan to burn it in the driveway "when life can get back to some kind of new normal."
Courtesy of Leah Spring

She’s trying to focus on daily routines now: morning walks or exercise videos, then schoolwork at the table in the living room, facilitated by binders of materials sent home with her kids.

School for some of her kids involves placing her hand over her child’s as she guides them on how to use the iPad.

Other times, she takes a break from academics and focuses on life skills: teaching her kids to fold towels or move laundry from the washer to the dryer.

“My kids with severe disabilities, they’re not learning. What they’re doing is they’re hopefully not losing skills. So, that’s our goal right now — to not lose skills,” Spring said. 

To get a break, Spring sometimes loads everyone up in the car, turns on some music, and goes for a drive. She said the singing is bad, but she gets a mental and emotional break. 

“We’re OK, but I know parents who are … absolutely not OK. There are zero breaks for kids who are much more high needs than my kids are,” Spring said. “We’re doing it because we don’t have a choice.” 

Some things don’t translate

Ben Drewelow is a teacher and instructional coach at North Education Center in New Hope. His intermediate district serves students from around the region with autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and cognitive or emotional disorders. 

The school model relies on a small army of staff working together to support students, often with one-on-one intervention. That’s an approach Drewelow said just doesn’t translate to distance learning.

“Special ed is set up with this team of people around the student,” Drewelow said. “You have all these auxiliary team members in the school system — school workers, occupational therapists ... education assistants who are all sort of there, chomping at the bit to help.”

He and his colleagues have been trying creative solutions to help their students and families. Some services, like speech therapy, translate to teletherapy. In other cases, they’ve set up conference calls with therapists, teachers and specialists to give parents ideas and strategies that might work at home. They’ve offered some real-time instruction but try to be flexible with whatever families need.  

A man sitting in front of a computer at a desk in a child's bedroom.
Ben Drewelow, a teacher and instructional coach at North Education Center, sits in his 4-year-old son's bedroom as he conducts a Google Meet with a student.
Courtesy of Ben Drewelow

In one case, Drewelow said, a parent asked for a 15-minute call at the same time every day so a student could stay occupied while the parent took the family dog for a walk. Teachers agreed to help.

In other cases, the school’s principal, Tonya Allen, has made personal visits to students’ homes to make sure newly delivered hot spots and internet connections are functioning properly. 

Still, Drewelow knows the burden on families with high-needs children is overwhelming. 

“For some parents it’s been extremely hard,” Drewelow said. “We’ve heard of parents who’ve had to stop working, not because they’ve lost their job but because their child no longer has school, so they have to stay home.” 

Also troubling to Drewelow is the lack of information on best practices, given that such a large-scale attempt at distance learning has never been done before.

“You don’t necessarily know if what you’re doing is going to be really effective. Right? Because in education we’re sort of obsessed with, ‘Where is there evidence?’” Drewelow said. “How will we know if any of this worked? What does success look like?”

State and federal requirements

Some special education administration groups have asked Congress to relax certain federal requirements from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the pandemic, such as timelines for evaluations and reviews of Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. 

But Daron Korte, assistant education commissioner in Minnesota, said districts are still required to provide special education services that are included in a student’s IEP. If parents feel like they aren’t getting those services, or believe they are entitled to additional services not included in the plan, they can file a complaint with the department and request mediation, he added. 

Korte and others have recognized that learning for special education students looks very different without in-person interaction. He’s said compensatory education may be necessary for some students to make up for stalled progress during the weeks of canceled classes. 

The state has issued a long list of special education guidance for districts that includes instructions on IEPs, timelines for evaluations and students who refuse to participate in distance learning.

‘I’m failing my kids’

Despite the efforts from schools and educators, many parents worry about the long- and short-term effects that school closures will have on their kids with special needs. 

Gov. Tim Walz added his own concerns to the heap on Monday, speaking generally about how some inequities in the education system are worsening during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This will have decadeslong impact on our children with this interruption if we don’t get this right,” said Walz, a former high school teacher.

Schools are closed at least through May 4, though Walz has said it’s not likely they’ll reopen before the end of the academic year. He indicated Monday that an announcement should come this week.

Barbara Champion, a single mother to four children, is trained in and has experience working with special education students. But the switch to distance learning, now in its fourth week in Minnesota, has been taxing even for her. Her kids have varying degrees of special needs such as autism, developmental delays and processing issues.

“The first three days [of distance learning], I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown,” Champion said. “I’m only one person. I cannot be a full-time para to all of them at the same time.”

A friend on Facebook advised Champion to ask her kids’ teachers for help. She found the teachers in her district were quick to change things to fit her children’s needs. She has only praise for her kids’ teachers, and has been advising other parents to ask for help when they need it. 

Still, she worries that all of her and her kids’ teachers’ best efforts won’t be enough. 

“I feel a little bit like I’m failing my kids, because I’m not giving them what they need from me,” Champion said, her voice wavering with emotion. “Mental health-wise, I think it’s probably hard on not just me, but on a lot of parents ... it’s just too much.”