Special needs students and teachers face hurdles that seem impossible

Students, parents and teachers across the country are all struggling to navigate school in the age of coronavirus.

But for special education classrooms, including students with learning differences as well as developmental and physical disabilities, the challenges are even greater — and sometimes, insurmountable.

In March, when her 10-year-old son’s school abruptly sent students home, Caren, a mom in Wayne, New Jersey, quickly realized she was in over her head. Her son Mark has cerebral palsy and a visual impairment and typically receives multiple therapies at school. Caren, a psychology professor who asked that her last name be withheld for family privacy concerns, didn’t know where to start.

special needs, special education, COVID-19 and schools (Photo by Paul Mango)
special needs, special education, COVID-19 and schools (Photo by Paul Mango)

“When we went to distance learning, I became the one-on-one (aide), I became the special education teacher, I became the speech therapist, the teacher of the visually impaired, the occupational therapist, the physical therapist, the orientation and mobility instructor,” she told TODAY Parents. “I don’t have training in any of those things. I became all of those literally overnight.”

Now, as students return to the classroom — in person or virtually — many parents and teachers worry that the plans just won’t work for special education.

Distance learning for special education

For starters, while distance learning isn’t ideal for many general education students, it is usually doable, at least. But many special education students like Mark rely on in-school services such as speech and physical therapy. Or they require hands-on instruction that makes Zoom lessons pointless.

Part of what makes special education unique is that teachers create individualized education plans for each student. That’s harder to do when classes are held virtually; teachers have no choice but to turn to a “one-size-fits-all” model, according to Avram Rips, a special education teacher in Newark, New Jersey.

“It’s going to be very hard for teachers to modify the lessons for one student,” he said, adding that he is skeptical of the efficacy of virtual learning for special education in general. “I think administrators are jumping on this technology part rather than human interaction. You’re not going to learn about a shape by playing a shape video.”

Some teachers told TODAY that their students need help using the bathroom or eating — tasks that can’t be done at a distance. Or that when their students realize congratulatory high-fives or goodbye hugs are no longer allowed, they’ll be disappointed at best, distraught at worst.

Consistency and routines are everything

Hybrid schedules can prove problematic as well. Special education teachers explained that consistency is hugely important for their students’ success.

Some depend on routine so fervently that a schedule that asks them to go back and forth between home and school would be disastrous. Many of their parents have simply opted out, knowing that their children wouldn’t be able to handle the stress. Add mandated mask wearing and the six-feet rule — policies that are difficult enough to enforce with responsible adults, let alone special education students — and, for some, the burden of returning to the classroom suddenly outweighs the benefits.

“The anxiety alone just isn’t worth those two days a week (of in-school learning),” said Rita Ann Molino, whose 18-year-old son, Scotty, has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes physical and intellectual disabilities.

Rita Ann Molino pulled her son Scotty, who has Angelman syndrome, out of school out of concerns related to the virus. (Courtesy Rita Ann Molino)
Rita Ann Molino pulled her son Scotty, who has Angelman syndrome, out of school out of concerns related to the virus. (Courtesy Rita Ann Molino)

Molino herself was a special education teacher who quit her job this summer when she realized she would need to be home with Scotty. Furthermore, she knew it wouldn’t be safe for either of them to be in a school environment and risk contracting the virus. Scotty, like many people with disabilities, has a compromised immune system. If he gets COVID-19, there could be dire consequences.

“I can’t even imagine what this virus would do to him, because I see what the common cold does to him,” Molino said. “These things that kids just go through and then they’re fine — the cold, the flu, a tonsillectomy — with kids like my son, we just pray that they wake up from the anesthesia, or that they don’t contract some bizarre infection.”

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The fear of losing ground

Other parents worry that the damage is already done, regardless of what schools do for fall.

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel reported last month about how his son Henry has regressed in the months that he’s been home and missing therapies due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Special needs children need practice to hold on to what they’ve learned,” he wrote in an essay for TODAY Parents. “Without school and therapies, special needs kids are moving backwards. There is a danger COVID is going to set back a whole generation of special needs children. We see it with Henry.”

Caren shares those worries, as she has watched her son regress educationally and physically over the summer. And even though she knows she is one of the lucky ones — her son’s school is letting him return four days a week, which helps with routine — she is still nervous about what that will look like. She thinks about what her son will do if another student gets too close to him without a mask, for example.

“He’s in a power wheelchair, so he doesn’t have the ability to, say, turn around and run away from someone,” she said. “He has to physically put a lot of work into moving his arm to his joystick and turning his wheelchair around.”

But Caren is grateful for Mark to have at least a sliver of normalcy: “He said, ‘I want you to go back to being my mom. I don’t want you to be my teacher.’ I said, ‘I totally just want to be your mom, too.’ So I hope we can go back to that.”

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