Special education students will start in-person classes as other students begin hybrid, online learning

Tabitha Day is glad her daughter, Emily, 13, will be going to school on Monday.

“Her actually going to school and getting any services at this point would be successful because she’s had nothing,” the Cedar Rapids mom said about her daughter, who is non-verbal and has a form of epilepsy that causes severe seizures.

In the past, school has been a place for Emily to interact with children of different abilities, work with a physical therapist and use equipment she doesn’t have at home, such as an adaptive swing. But since COVID-19 closed schools last spring, Emily hasn’t had any of these services, her mother said.

“I know she has to have some deficits in her communicating,” Day said. “The social part is really important to her. She needs to have those connections with people — her peers and other people besides myself.”

Day filed a federal lawsuit against the Cedar Rapids Community School District last year alleging discrimination because of a district policy requiring students with severe epilepsy to leave school if they receive medication to stop a seizure. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission in June deemed Day’s complaints worthy of investigation and that process has started, Day said.

District officials initially wanted Emily to do remote learning this fall, her mother said.

“The problem is, for us to go virtual, that would mean I’d have to take on every position they have there. I’d have to be the physical therapist, the occupational therapist, plus the teacher,” Day said. “It’s not really a reasonable thing, especially when Emily isn’t going to access the computer. It’s going to be me.”

Day insisted Emily attend school in person. Emily will go to Taft Middle School once the school is repaired after derecho damage, Day said. Until then, she will be at Jefferson High School, where the special education classroom was not damaged in the derecho last month.

The high school will not be open to all students until January, and high school students will start school online Monday.

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Cedar Rapids students have the option to choose to the in-person or temporary remote instruction model or the Cedar Rapids Virtual Academy, a long-term online program.

Cedar Rapids schools have over 2,400 special education students. About 30 percent have chosen online instruction, said Wendy Parker, executive director of special services.

Jefferson High School teacher John Devine, who teaches students with significant and profound disabilities, is providing in-person instruction to students who need it.

Devine is also teaching several students online who are severely at-risk for COVID-19 by including them virtually in group instruction.

Devine said the students he works with are “incredibly intelligent,” and they have a disconnect between their minds and their bodies. Many of them are non-verbal and communicate with sounds or gestures.

“I’m concerned about them losing academic skills (over the six-month break from school), but I’m more concerned about them losing their abilities to use whatever bodily functions they had to communicate or other every day skills,” he said.

Devine, who works with the same students for multiple years, said his classroom feels almost like a family. He wants to do everything in his power to keep students healthy.

Devine has been isolating at home for months, and only goes out for necessities like groceries, he said.

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“My staff and I have already sat down and gone over requirements. Masks have to be worn at all times by staff. We are limiting who else comes into our classroom,” he said.

Although the Iowa City Community School District started online-only instruction Sept. 8, it has given the option to a select few special education students to return for in-person classes.

Lisa Glenn, Iowa City schools director of special education, said she does not know how many special education students returned to in-person learning because it was an individual discussion with student’s families, teachers and administrators.

In starting school online, Glenn said some special education teams came to the conclusion they were at a dead end in being able to provide fair and equitable education for students with “severe and complicated needs.”

“Our teachers don’t want to see our kids struggle with not being successful,” Glenn said. “The people involved in these conversations, parents who don’t feel like they have the skills to help (their kids), and the teachers on the ground are the people doing the hardest work.”

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