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Why online learning is hard on students with special needs

Students who thrive on structure are stalling as the coronavirus crisis separates them from teachers and friends. Parents are seeing more meltdowns. “My stomach has been in knots.”
Mandy Minor works with her 8-year-old daughter, Clara, on a class assignment at home. Clara suffers from learning and developmental delays due to DiGeorge Syndrome. Without peers and a teacher to propel her through the day, she burns out quickly, her mother says.
Mandy Minor works with her 8-year-old daughter, Clara, on a class assignment at home. Clara suffers from learning and developmental delays due to DiGeorge Syndrome. Without peers and a teacher to propel her through the day, she burns out quickly, her mother says. [ Courtesy of Alastair St. Hill ]
Published Apr. 4, 2020

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Tracie McHugh has tried everything to make remote learning work for her two boys. But their house isn’t a classroom and she’s not a teacher.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced Florida schools to close, André, 6, and Gavin, 8, would pop out of bed to start the day. That changed when home and school became the same place, and now it’s a miracle if any work gets done.

André has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which he usually gets therapy for at his Manatee County school. Gavin is on the autism spectrum, and the change in routine has them both “totally out of sorts,” McHugh said.

The brothers are among tens of thousands of special-needs students across Tampa Bay who, because of the virus, are missing out on services and accommodations that made learning work for them. Schools are trying to keep up, officials say, but some things can’t be replicated remotely.

The switch has disrupted progress some children have made in coping with their disabilities, parents and guardians say. Gavin, for example, is also diagnosed with a feeding disorder, and without therapy he’s regressed to eating only three foods since schools closed.

Some parents worry they’ll have to keep their kids from moving to the next grade. Others have watched their children have violent meltdowns and are putting off school work just to get through the day without a fight.

“My stomach has been in knots all day,” Laura McCrary wrote to the Tampa Bay Times after helping her son, a 16-year-old Pinellas County student with autism. “We are barely hanging on by a thread.”

André McHugh, left, and his brother, Gavin McHugh, work on school assignments from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Both are special-needs students in Manatee County schools. [Courtesy of Tracie McHugh]
André McHugh, left, and his brother, Gavin McHugh, work on school assignments from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Both are special-needs students in Manatee County schools. [Courtesy of Tracie McHugh]

About 15,000 students in Pinellas are considered special-needs, according to Lynne Mowatt, head of social services for the school district. Satisfying their federally mandated individualized education plans, called IEPs, is a challenge when teachers can’t be face-to-face, she said.

Some students, for example, are non-verbal, so they can’t speak directly with their teachers. Others have extreme behavior issues that specialists can’t address over the internet, so “reasonableness” is key as teachers work to meet requirements laid out in students’ plans, Mowatt said.

Districts nationwide are awaiting direction from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is considering waiving those requirements, according to the New York Times. The country’s $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, signed last week by President Donald Trump, allows her to ask Congress to waive parts of special education law.

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In the meantime, Pasco County special-needs teachers have been told to be patient and work to understand and support each student’s specific situation, said Trinity Oaks teacher Staci Guten. She’s been in regular contact with guardians for all 15 of her students to address their concerns and needs. There are about 12,500 special-needs students across the district.

“It’s constant communication,” said Guten, 38. “Hundreds of emails, hundreds of text messages, hundreds of phone calls … We’re in so much contact with parents.”

Special-needs teacher Staci Guten. [Courtesy of Staci Guten]
Special-needs teacher Staci Guten. [Courtesy of Staci Guten]

She teaches kids with varying hurdles: autism, learning disabilities, language impairment, vision issues and more. All of them were highly dependent to begin with, and the added stresses of isolation from friends and learning a new computer program could be enough to derail a student mentally or emotionally, she said.

Katie Hawks, another Pasco special-needs teacher, said she’s tried to focus on helping families create routines for students that might give them back a sense of normalcy. “We need to look at their social and emotional needs and balance that with learning,” she said.

In Hernando County, where about 3,900 students are special-needs, Carla Johns has four kids that usually attend Pinegrove Elementary. Now, they gather together in the living room to learn on computers.

Her oldest, Hunter, is on the autism spectrum and suffers from a slew of behavioral disorders. “I don’t want to do school,” the 12-year-old told her on the first day of remote learning. “It’s not my fault there’s a coronavirus.”

He had been making progress in his special-needs classroom, and finally was transitioning to regular fifth-grade classes just before the virus broke out. Now, like many other students, he no longer has the structure that was helping him succeed.

“We were trying to get him mainstreamed before middle school,” Johns said. “He was thriving … and now I am petrified that he will not make it into sixth grade because he is not going to get what he needs.”

Hunter, Austin, Logan and Aaliyah Johns pose for a photo outside their home during a break from remote schoolwork. Hunter, 12, is a special-needs student at Pine Grove Elementary in Hernando County. [Courtesy of Carla Johns]
Hunter, Austin, Logan and Aaliyah Johns pose for a photo outside their home during a break from remote schoolwork. Hunter, 12, is a special-needs student at Pine Grove Elementary in Hernando County. [Courtesy of Carla Johns]

Susan Mason, a parent of a special-needs student in Hillsborough County, said her son’s accommodations simply can’t be delivered online. School closures have put him at an increased disadvantage when compared to general education students in the county, which has more than 34,000 special-needs students.

He went from receiving significant support at school to being on his own at home, in a “highly distractible mode of learning,” Mason said. “Our choice is to make it work or he won’t go on to the ninth grade.”

Mandy Minor, a parent in Pinellas, said she is grateful her 8-year-old daughter, Clara, has access to some school work to keep her learning while campuses are closed. But without peers and a teacher to propel her through the day, the first-grader, who suffers learning and developmental delays due to DiGeorge Syndrome, gets burned out quickly.

“I imagine, cumulatively, this will have a negative effect on her,” Minor said. “I feel bad for the teachers, because they’re trying really hard. … But I don’t know how you can effectively be a teacher to 20 or 30 kids when you don’t even get to see them.”

Charlene Grecsek, executive director of SEDNET, a multiagency network for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, held a webinar Thursday about remote learning for families of special-needs children. More than 400 people tuned in.

She urged parents to breathe and “know you’re doing the very best you can.” She told them to “understand the impact of the change” caused by the coronavirus. Take breaks, move around, she said, and reward children for their progress.

“Ask them what is best for them,” Grecsek said. “Find what works.”

For McHugh, the mother of two in Manatee, that has meant taking the boys on morning walks, setting up a dedicated schooling space and crafting a visual schedule with movable tasks to make the day more structured and fun.

Tracie McHugh, a mother of two special-needs students in Manatee County schools, made a visual schedule with movable tasks to make learning from home more structured and fun. [Courtesy of Tracie McHugh]
Tracie McHugh, a mother of two special-needs students in Manatee County schools, made a visual schedule with movable tasks to make learning from home more structured and fun. [Courtesy of Tracie McHugh]

Johns, the mother in Hernando, says she’s buying an inflatable slide to reward her kids and get them out of the house. She and other parents say they refuse to push their kids past their limits.

“You just gotta do what you have to do in order to get through the day,” said McCrary, another Pinellas mom. “We will put mental health above online learning. We have no choice."

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