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As schools reopen, pandemic forces hard choices for special needs students

Many children with disabilities thrive with face-to-face lessons, but sending them back to campus right now has its drawbacks.

Tommy Steele’s first two virtual school lessons in the spring went great. His mom felt optimistic. Then Friday rolled around.

Tommy, a rising third-grader with Down syndrome, opened his brother’s Macbook on the kitchen table at 9 a.m. Peggy Steele sat beside her son to coax him through the day’s lesson: 45 minutes of reading and math, taught over Zoom.

Within minutes, Tommy slumped over the table. Forearms folded in front of him, he buried his head and fixed his gaze on the floor.

When he finally lifted his head, he refused to speak, but the message was clear.

No more learning for today.

Children with special needs face many roadblocks in their education, like trouble focusing on a task or communicating their thoughts. Special education programs are created to address those hurdles. But their solutions, which often rely on face-to-face interaction with teachers, may be lost during the coronavirus crisis as more families and school systems turn to virtual learning.

At Fishhawk Creek Elementary in Hillsborough County, a paraprofessional accompanied Tommy to all of his classes before the pandemic hit, moderating his behavior and helping him through classwork. He also had access to speech, physical and occupational therapists, in addition to his full-time special education teachers.

But when the family kitchen became Tommy’s classroom, his mother was the only educational authority by his side. Looking ahead to the upcoming semester, she doesn’t feel equipped to fill that role.

“His teachers know how to get him out of his funks,” Steele said. “They’re professionals. They have the training. I don’t have those same tools.”

Related: RELATED: Why online learning is hard on students with special needs

For William Spinks, losing daily interactions with teachers led to significant academic regression. William, a third-grader with Down syndrome at Claywell Elementary School in Tampa, has struggled with reading for years. His father, Ed Spinks, said William had worked hard to get his reading level to that of a child leaving kindergarten.

But six months out of the classroom tanked William’s progress as schools remained closed through the school year and the summer months set in. Spinks said William’s teachers had basically given up on persuading him to do his online schoolwork.

“They didn’t expect him to do it, and they didn’t really care whether he did or not,” said Spinks.

William’s behavior at home also took a turn for the worse, with tantrums and roughhousing becoming a regular part of his routine. Where kids without Down syndrome would have retained their social skills, Spinks said, William was losing them.

Spinks felt he had no choice. William had to go back to school in person.

William Spinks, 9, poses for a picture while working at his desk. The third-grader will return to Claywell Elementary in person this fall. [ Courtesy of Ed Spinks ]

While sending a child with special needs back to school may make learning easier, it introduces new worries into the mix.

Will the students wear their masks? Will they keep their hands to themselves? Those are questions educators have pondered for all students as schools prepare to reopen for 2020-21. But they are more pressing for students with decreased impulse control and prone to inappropriate behavior.

William hates wearing a mask, but his father isn’t concerned. “He’s working on it,” Spinks said.

He’s more worried that his son would regress academically by sitting at home.

Peggy Steele isn’t as confident that Tommy would be able to follow the school’s safety protocol. Like many children with special needs, Tommy suffers from comorbid health conditions, including respiratory and thyroid issues. Because of his cognitive disability, he might not wear his mask, wash his hands, or keep his hands to himself in a classroom.

Regardless of how difficult the spring semester was, Tommy’s mom knew she couldn’t put her child at risk by sending him to school in the fall. But enrolling Tommy in e-learning for the fall semester will force her to make sacrifices of her own. She’s leaving her human resources job the first week of September, knowing she’ll have to sit in her kitchen with Tommy eight hours a day, five days a week.

Related: Online or on-campus? What Tampa Bay kids are saying about school and the virus

Sheena An Jennings will also stay at home to care for her son, Nicholas Alston, who has autism spectrum disorder. She and her husband were both laid off months ago, and Jennings says having both parents at home has helped the 15-year-old cope with the isolation.

Nicholas often holes up in his “bachelor pad,” with a comfy couch, TV and plenty of books — but social interaction is crucial for his development, says Jennings. She knows her son thrives on routine, so she created a schedule that forces him to come out of his room several times a day for chores like folding laundry, making dinner or walking their new dog.

In the spring, Jennings helped Nicholas through virtual school at Focus Academy, a charter school in Temple Terrace for children with special needs. This semester, she’ll continue to walk him through word problems and outline his English papers from home. His therapists have gone remote, too, so Jennings started doing physical therapy with him in their inflatable pool.

Sheena An Jennings and her son, Nicholas Alston, 15, mix ingredients for a gluten-free coffee cake. Nicholas will remain at home for virtual learning through Focus Academy this semester. [ Courtesy of Sheena An Jennings ]

Many parents wonder if their children will continue to receive physical, occupational or speech therapy, usually administered by the school. While Jennings had weekly calls with Nicholas’ therapists in the spring, Steele didn’t hear from Tommy’s therapists at all.

“They just disappeared,” Steele said, adding that she has “no idea” if Tommy will have access to those services remotely for the upcoming semester.

The Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando county school districts have detailed their plans to provide therapy whenever possible in the fall to thousands of children with disabilities. That could include sending packets of information or calling parents in place of a traditional therapy session.

Related: RELATED: Child's new normal: speech therapy through a computer screen

Yet even children who return to campus will face challenges in therapy. Physical and occupational therapists can no longer take the hands-on approach their job requires, and speech therapists won’t be able to show the child how their lips are moving to pronounce a sound. A clear mask or face shield can mitigate that problem, but it may not solve it.

Tiffany Back, a sixth-grade ESE teacher at Seminole Middle School, also worries about how she will communicate with her students.

Kids with special needs are often too shy to raise their hand and ask a question, Back says. Normally, she circles the room while the general education teacher presents to the class, waiting for a student to pull her aside and whisper their question in her ear.

Now that she can’t go near her students, she’s afraid they won’t ask questions at all.

To make learning easier for her special needs students, Back frequently uses “manipulatives” like blocks, beads and whiteboards — tools the kids can touch. When a student with a disability is really struggling with a subject, she lets them share a desk with a peer, who can show them how to work through the problem.

This fall, she’ll have to come up with brand new strategies to do her job. But the health of her students is her top priority.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep them safe,” Back said. “They just have to work with us.”

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