David Taylor knows not everyone can rush back to school as if the pandemic never happened.
But his 15-year-old daughter, Lily, who has Angelman syndrome, desperately needs the in-person education and services schools typically provide to special needs children, he said.
“There are a lot of students being left behind,” Taylor said. “We’re not trying to make a case for reopening classes” for everyone.
Angelman syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes delayed cognitive development, minimal speaking, difficulty walking and more, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lilly’s special education includes occupational and speech therapy, Taylor said.
“She’s not doing anything” at home, Taylor said.
“The Chromebook is a crutch,” Taylor said, referring to the laptops districts provide students for remote learning.
Parents of students in special education classes are calling on school districts to provide access to at least some in-person education amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Calls to return special needs children to the classroom got a boost earlier this month from S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, who urged all schools to allow a face-to-face option for special needs students, K-5 students, homeless students and more.
Spearman’s letter, however, was not a mandate, and it’s unclear if districts will adopt the letter’s full recommendations.
Officials from Richland 1, Richland 2, Lexington 1 and Lexington 2 all said last week they have not yet made any changes to their reopening plans following Spearman’s letter.
Janie Neeley, whose 4-year-old son, Marshall, has Down Syndrome, said she sent her son to St. Joseph’s Catholic School instead of Brennen Elementary because online-only classes are not able to provide the services and resources her son needs.
“This is like a total nightmare,” Neeley, a former public school teacher, told The State. “They’re really not providing services.”
The specific services special education students need vary, but could include speech therapy, physical therapy and more.
Parents of special needs students told The State they understand why schools are using online-only classes, but they argue the number of special education students is small enough, and the need for in-person special education services is great enough, that districts should be able to allow special education students to return without greatly increasing the chances of spreading coronavirus.
“There has to be some accommodation. There has to be some way to socially distance,” Neeley said. “It should be phased in. Special needs students should be able to go back first.”
Gene Pierce, whose sixth grade son at E.L. Wright Middle School has autism, agreed special needs students should have the option for in-person classes.
“There are ways we could do it,” Pierce said, noting the relatively small number of special needs students compared to the school’s overall population.
An online petition calling on S.C. education officials to offer in-person classes five days per week for special needs students has generated more than 1,600 signatures as of Tuesday.
For their part, school districts have been providing virtual services and technology to special needs students. Some districts, such as Richland 2 is phasing-in pilot programs where special needs children can get services such as physical and occupational therapy and other programs where special needs students can return to in-person classes one day per week, Richland 2 spokeswoman Libby Roof said in an email.
Parents have been saying for months they lack the in-person services often provided by schools and were seeing their children socially, mentally and academically regress as a result, said Dawn Darby, the executive director of The Therapy Place, a Columbia-based nonprofit that provides services to special needs children.
“They’ve been in this position since March,” Darby said of families with special needs.
When special needs children miss out on essential services for extended periods of times, they can lose progress, experts say.
“To lose out on 6 months of intervention when your child is just three years old is devastating,” said Laura Carpenter, a pediatrics professor at the Medical University of South Carolina who focuses on autism and developmental disabilities.
One of the more complex nuances of treating special needs children is that they each respond differently to instruction methods like online learning, Carpenter said. While some special needs students actually prefer virtual learning, others struggle to make any progress with online learning, Carpenter said.
“For the kids who really cannot do it I think it’s important we find some sort of alternative” to virtual classes, Carpenter said. “Because if not, we’re losing such valuable intervention time for these kids.”