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Are Students With Disabilities Being Left Behind? Challenges Of Virtual Learning.

Courtesy Autism Society of NC
Tackling obstacles in everyday life is a main goal of ABA therapies, with tailored therapies to build independence.

As school districts across the state deliberated over whether to bring students back to the classroom or teach them virtually, social media message boards filled with comments from North Carolina parents with strong opinions on all sides.

But for Brooke Rose, there was no ideal option for her family in Wake County, which is holding virtual classes.


As a teacher of sixth grade science, Rose preferred the remote option in her professional life. She spent a lot of time transferring her teaching material online this spring. Seeing the same kids every day online would be better than the rotating in-person schedule Wake School officials were considering, she said.

But in her personal life, as the mother of a first grader with autism, Rose said she hoped her son Mason could return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mason had been thriving with the support he received at his elementary school. When classes moved online this spring, Rose said he struggled with the transition and the new platform.

“We feel like special ed kids are being unfairly left out or forgotten,” Rose said. “A typical developing student may have trouble with the virtual platform, but it’s even more challenging for special ed kids.”

Virtual classes can be more difficult for the nearly 204,000 students in special education programs in North Carolina who may rely on more in-person support. It can also be more challenging for some students with intellectual or developmental disabilities to understand what COVID-19 is and why it’s disrupting life all around them.

For many, routine is crucial to their success.

“For our community, change is hard. So this whole situation has not been easy — whether you have a diagnosis of autism, whether you're a family member or caregiver,” said David Laxton, spokesman for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

There are dozens of resources on the organization's website to support people with autism and their caregivers during coronavirus — including social narratives about temperature checks and wearing masks. The organization also has many webinars on topics such as navigating the current process around Individualized Education Programs (IEP), which are plans hammered out between parents and school districts for accommodating the needs of children with disabilities. Laxton said viewership of the organization’s webinars more than tripled after the stay-at-home orders went into effect this spring.

“Social narratives and visual supports are a good way of being able to help someone with autism organize the information and make sense out of it a little bit easier,” Laxton said.

The governor gave school districts the flexibility to choose in-person classes, virtual learning or a combination of the two. Roughly half of N.C.’s school districts, including some of the largest districts, chose all virtual learning, comprising about two-thirds of the state’s schoolchildren. The rest of the districts, mostly smaller ones, opted for a hybrid of the two.

In their reopening plans submitted to the state, a few school district officials noted that they would provide some in-person instruction for students with disabilities.

Making exceptions

Haywood County schools opted for remote learning, but officials say they are creating some exceptions.

“Pre-Kindergarten, small groups of elementary students who were struggling academically before COVID-19, and for some students with specialized learning plans will have in-person learning opportunities,” Haywood County Schools superintendent wrote in the county’s plan posted to the district website.

The McDowell County school system is giving special education students the option to attend in-person learning every day.

In Bertie County, school officials made special provisions for students who are part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP). And so far, it’s going well, according to Tiffany Mizell, who teaches ninth grade to 22-year-olds in the special education classroom at the county’s one high school.

Mizell gave her 12 students the option to come to class or learn online, six decided to come to the classroom. For those who feel comfortable, they come to school Monday through Wednesday, she said.

Her students were a little apprehensive about wearing masks at first, but reading social stories and making games out of it has helped them. Mizell said some will even tattle on other kids not wearing masks while eating.

As for the other half of her class, Mizell is still teaching those students remotely. Though it can be challenging because her kids have a harder time grasping concepts virtually, she said parents and students are participating more this fall than in the spring. In the spring, many saw remote learning as a Band-Aid, but now more parents and students are accepting the “new normal.”

“I don’t like it as much as having my babies in the classroom, but we’ll work with it for the time being,” said Mizell, who has been teaching in the same classroom for 11 years.

Mizell and other Bertie County teachers took a Google certification training in the spring, and she said she can now bring her presentations to life on the screen. Her online students are a little nervous about talking sometimes, and the social deficit adds to that, Mizell said.

But she encourages the parents to stay consistent and keep a routine.


Though it’s possible for any student to regress during breaks or disruptions from school, it’s harder for those with a learning disability.

Rose is concerned by the setbacks she’s seen in her son. At his 6-year-old medical checkup, Mason couldn’t remember the letters of the alphabet to complete his vision test, Rose recalled. When the nurse pulled out a test sheet with shapes instead, he still struggled.

Mason’s attention span for video calls is limited. He really does better face-to-face, Rose said.

Since she and her husband work full-time, they continued sending their youngest child to preschool this spring and were pleased with the COVID-19 precautions taken and the overall experience. But Rose said teaching Mason at home was challenging.

“Every day is a struggle between feeling like a bad mom or a bad teacher,” she said.

Rose said she is fortunate to have her parents nearby who have offered to help homeschool Mason.

For Freda Banther Dias’ son Joshua, school is “his main outlet in life,” she said. When Wake County Public School classes moved online in March, Joshua, 17, wouldn’t engage with the Zoom classes, Banther Dias said.

“He would get agitated and upset,” she said, “He wouldn’t even try to do the activities. He likes to be parallel to people.”

So far, the school has been able to offer Joshua one hour of one-on-one remote instruction with his teacher. Banther Dias projects the teacher onto the TV screen for her son so he doesn’t have to sit in front of a computer. She said her request for in-home instruction was declined and she’s pursuing at-home Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy.


Waiting for a psych bed

For others, the coronavirus pandemic has upended their lives to the point of hospitalization.

“Our eldest is back in psych ER,” Natania Barron posted on Twitter earlier this month. “We kind of suspected we were heading there. Social isolation and autism and teenage angst is not a good combination.”

Before the pandemic, Barron said her 14-year-old son Liam was finally doing really well in the Chapel Hill school system. His conversation skills had improved, and he was benefiting from group therapies.

But when everything moved online this spring, Barron said the Zoom calls were just not enough for Liam.

“He flourishes so much with schedule. It’s like a security blanket,” she said. “When things are just as expected, that’s a relief for him. Having friends and a group was a reason for him to get up.”

There were a few incidents during the early months of the pandemic which would have warranted a visit to the hospital under normal circumstances, Barron said, but she was afraid to take Liam because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Barron and her son came to a breaking point in early September, and Liam insisted on inpatient treatment. As his depression and anxiety worsened, so did his thoughts and attempts of self-harm.

“I’m afraid there will be a second epidemic of children who will harm themselves or have psychotic episodes,” Barron said.

Because of COVID-19, hospitals have implemented visitor restrictions and caregivers cannot always accompany a patient. Barron said her husband is the one designated visitor for Liam during his hospital stay.

The Autism Society of NC and advocacy groups have requested that exceptions be made for patients with a disability, according to Laxton.

There is also a COVID-19 disability form for caregivers to fill out in the event of a hospitalization that can help the health workers understand and care for the patient. For example, the caregiver can describe how the patient best communicates or triggers that could upset the patient.

Liam waited 12 days in UNC hospital’s emergency psych department for an inpatient bed to open up somewhere in the state. He was placed in an inpatient facility in the Triangle on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Barron and her son. They’ve been here before.

Barron, a local writer, detailed the events and emotions in her house through the years as her son has been in and out of the hospital.

“The fifth time he’s hospitalized it’s because… it’s because of so many things,” Barron wrote in a recent blog post.

“He’s not safe. He’s not stable. He’s a mess. He’s crying. He’s abusive. He’s cut his hands. He’s threatening so much worse. And he’s so much bigger than you, now. You’re in an abusive relationship with his mental illness.”

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org