Special needs students struggle to adapt to on-screen, hands-off learning amid pandemic

For sixth-grader Santiago Casas, who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, going to school means staying home and staring at a computer for six hours.

The screen, like a drawbridge stuck in the up position, has left him stranded, cut off from the cognitive and social nurturing he received in the classroom.

He has trouble with organization, so clicking between online calendars, messages, documents and assignments for six advanced classes is “like negotiating a maze,” said his mother. He has trouble concentrating, so sitting still through the 115-minute periods of his new online block schedule at Glades Middle School on two-dimensional Zoom and Teams meeting platforms is “like torture,” she said.

Santiago used to love school. Now he hates it. So do his parents and teachers. Remote learning, a disruption to everyone’s education during the coronavirus pandemic, creates an even higher barrier for students with special physical, emotional and developmental needs. They are struggling to adapt. They are learning how to learn all over again, in a high-tech netherworld where the classroom has been replaced by an 8-by-12-inch machine.

“I was hopeful at the start of school that Santi could work independently because the last three months of fifth grade after the onset of the pandemic were a total loss, and a lot of students gave up and did not attend at all,” said Yvette Torres Casas, Santiago’s mother, who is temporarily unemployed and serves as his harried de facto teacher’s aide, keeping him on schedule, printing and scanning papers, answering his questions and muting noisy classmates while he works at the dining room table and his 14-year-old brother and father work from bedrooms inside their South Miami house.

“But it has been insane, frustrating and exhausting. We need in-person, old-fashioned school. Too many kids, parents and teachers are ending the day in tears.”

The first two weeks of the school year for Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ students and teachers became especially daunting when the virtual learning platform My School Online, engineered by private company K12, failed to function and the system’s servers crashed during a series of cyberattacks.

Virtual schooling has stabilized for the 275,000 students and 20,000 teachers of the nation’s fourth-largest district now that the platform used by traditional public schools has been scrapped and supplanted by commonly used ones such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

But for about 14 percent of the student population, those enrolled in Exceptional Student Education or ESE programs with a wide range of disorders and disabilities, adjustments are tough. They and their teachers are obligated to follow blueprints called Individualized Education Plans mandated by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. They need routine, repetition, predictability and hands-on personal instruction to thrive. Many receive physical, occupational and speech therapy daily at school.

Remote learning tough for ESE students

“The pressures are double and triple on these kids, who are not as adaptable as neuro-typical kids,” said Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, a pediatrician and professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System and Miller School of Medicine and associate director of the Mailman Center for Child Development. “Schools provide the one-on-one, face-to-face, high-touch interventions they need. The structure and therapists are in place.

“Change is very chaotic. At home, the boundaries between school and play are not clear and it’s harder to understand and meet expectations. On the computer, kids are not learning the social skills of sharing, dealing with different kinds of people, expressing yourself — and these lessons are just as important as math or reading.

“Combine that with the fact we are dealing with a lot of uncertainty and strife — COVID risks, economic distress, political division, isolation from friends and relatives — and it’s an extra stressful time for these kids and their families without the haven of school.”

Monday meeting to discuss reopening of Miami-Dade Schools

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and school board members will continue debate Monday on when to reopen schools with restricted capacity. The board could speed up the timeline for opening to make it earlier than Oct. 5, and kids with special needs would be part of the first wave into the classroom.

“My concern is they’re only thinking about academics and not about the safety and welfare of those students and teachers,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats. “As an ESE teacher, I can tell you most ESE students have underlying medical conditions, so you would put already vulnerable kids in a situation more vulnerable for them. We don’t think it’s safe. We don’t think it’s right. We’re asking for logical demands so when we do open we protect our kids and our families.”

Joanna Palmer won’t be sending her 6-year-old son Marcos back to Whigham Elementary in Cutler Bay when the doors swing open. She will wait, even though juggling her job in the healthcare communications field from home while shepherding Marcos through the virtual school day in a class of 11 autistic first graders and kindergartners is a heavy burden.

“I can’t take a chance putting him into an indoor environment with flu season starting,” she said. “A simple runny nose would freak me out . Kids may be asymptomatic, but they are not immune and he already has a limited ability to express how he’s feeling. I’d like to see how it goes from the sidelines as they work out the kinks and not make him part of the experiment.”

Marcos practices wearing a mask but like many kids on the autism spectrum he is ultra sensitive to the feeling of it on his skin. Social distancing at school could be tricky for kids learning basic body language mores and communication skills.

Strain on parents

Yet the strain on Palmer and her husband, who also have a 4-year-old daughter, is immense. She is by Marcos’ side to keep him engaged.

“I sit next to him with one eye on his work and one eye on my own,” she said. “We know children with special needs benefit most from in-person guidance. It’s difficult for any 6-year-old to retain and regurgitate information from a screen. I’m helping him with the keyboard and mouse.

“If a story is read, I have to listen because while he knows how to write and he knows the answers to the questions, he may have to be directed to write them down. I’m scanning and emailing work to the teacher. I’m showing him how to use the math counter. I’m muting him or other kids when they repeat aloud what they’ve heard, which is called echolalia.

“They’re in their own little bubble and you have to focus them in the here and now. Just arranging their papers, pencils and books as part of their rigid routine can consume every ounce of their concentration.”

Palmer set up a desk-bunk bed combo in the playroom as Marcos’ designated school space so he can climb up top for quiet breaks. She’s proud of how he’s tolerated daily telehealth therapy sessions. He likes to draw, build with Legos and is learning to play the piano.

“He’s had to work harder. He is smart — this is not a learning disability, it’s a neuro and social disability,” she said. “But we worry that the absence from in-person school will impede his ability to grow socially so he can hold a job someday. We’re seeing regression in skills, which come naturally to others that we built with great effort.

“My son hasn’t socialized outside his sister and cousins since March, and even when a cousin visits he might stay in his room. I worry about coming out the other end of this pandemic and throwing him back into society.”

Special-needs students were already fighting to hang onto hard-won milestones given the six-month lapse in school time. Their parents and teachers fear they will lose ground in educational achievement and emotional well-being.

Parents of special-needs students are among the most vocal

At recent tense marathon school board meetings, parents of special-needs students have been among the most vocal, reminding educators that education plan services cannot be suspended, reduced or treated like an afterthought lest their children fall into an irreversible tailspin.

“Their skills don’t grow in a typical pattern. It’s more like splintered progress,” said Michelle Schladant, assistant director of UM’s Mailman Center for Child Development, assistant professor of pediatrics, a former special education teacher and a mother of four.

“Continuity of therapies is very important, and therapists are under pressure to provide services to be in compliance with the law. But how does a speech therapist teach articulation and administer a test remotely? How does an occupational therapist teach kids how to use a pencil or turn the pages of a book or sit in a chair through a screen? How does a physical therapist teach walking, balance and coordination online, and how could parents place and operate the necessary equipment in their homes?”

Concerns over social skills regressing

Social skills can degrade rapidly if autistic or anxious kids slip into their isolation comfort mode.

“School is where we learn about the world and how to be in the world,” Schladant said. “Without access to peers, kids are missing opportunities to interact socially and develop friendships.”

Nor can teachers teaching from afar read students’ physical cues and nuances in order to help them behave appropriately in social situations.

“If kids are losing skills it leads to feelings of inadequacy,” Schladant said. “They know they don’t learn like everybody else. They may feel inferior, so that’s another step backward in their growth.”

Cary Martinez is ready to send her 4-year-old daughter Milana to in-person public pre-K as soon as possible. She said Milana’s speech skills have regressed since March.

“She should be having conversations, but we are celebrating one-word responses,” Martinez said. Milana was diagnosed with autism at 19 months of age. “The COVID shutdown put the brakes on her progress and she’s gone back to being selectively mute.”

She and her husband both work full-time outside their Doral home. She took Milana to her office for two months when private preschools closed in March and several times more since they reopened in May.

Since public schools opened remotely Aug. 31, Martinez has shifted her schedule to accompany Milana through two virtual hours at Eugenia Thomas K-8 Center in the morning before driving her to Wings Academy, a private preschool, for the remainder of the day.

“She has a 10-15 minute attention span with bouts of high energy and can’t stay sitting at a desktop computer so she is using an iPad and I can chase her around the house and put the screen in her hands,” Martinez said. “The extra screen time is not good for autistic kids who were already addicted to screens because they are isolating.”

The lack of true eye contact via the iPad means Milana loses interest quickly. She responds well to singing but if her teacher talks too long, Milana drifts away. Nevertheless, she’s learning new things, with constant assistance from her frazzled mother.

“At the start of class they give them options on greetings: hello, hug, air kiss. Milana loves to hug, so I have to be next to her to hug her and simulate the greeting,” Martinez said. “Sometimes I have to put her in my lap and lift up her arms and clap her hands.

“They’re learning how to wear masks and that requires help. They’re learning rhyming words, so we repeat those. How to make choices — do you want to go to the pool or playground? How to associate the first letter of their names with other words: M is for moon. They’re learning how to count, how to sign and how to relieve stress by pretending to be a balloon and releasing air. That one has been a good lesson for me, too.”

Overall, how has Martinez weathered the tele-therapy and remote school crunch?

“I’ve hated every minute of it,” she said. “We’re all on a laborious mission to educate our kids and it’s not working.”

She commends the teachers.

“The teachers always have a smile and amazing amounts of energy,” she said. “They say, ‘We’re in computer school because it’s not safe right now.’ I can tell it’s defeating them because they want so badly to connect with their students. I have a friend who teaches fifth grade and she’s been crying every day.”

Yet the cloud that can hang over special-needs students has an abundant silver lining. Their supporters are exceptionally resilient. The challenge of remote school is fostering positive pushback.

Parents have discovered a window into their children’s learning process during extra together time at home.

“Perhaps by necessity, I think more parents are tapping into the knowledge and resources they need to give their child the best chance of success,” Palmer said.

Teachers are making innovations.

“Special ed teachers are trained to provide intense individual instruction,” Schladant said. “They’re great at knowing a child’s strengths. If anybody can be creative, it is these teachers who are so passionate about their job. They can make virtual learning better. They are already doing things like coaching parents on how to incorporate teachable moments into cooking, shopping, playing outside.”

Teachers will show their students how to catch up.

“There’s been regression at every level for every student in every country in every ZIP code. We are in a state of emergency,” Hernandez-Mats said. “When we come back, we can mitigate any learning losses. We’ll evaluate, we’ll assess and we’ll figure out what strategies and techniques to implement to minimize achievement gaps. The K12 platform didn’t have any mechanism or curriculum for ESE. So our ESE teachers were already being creative because they knew the platform would be insufficient.”

Students with anxiety problems can benefit from staying home, UM’s Brosco said.

“For a small percentage of my patients, not going to school has dramatically reduced their anxiety because they don’t have to deal with the madness of school — the crowded classrooms, hallways, cafeterias,” he said. “They can focus on education in a more calm, controlled environment. And for teens who already live very virtual lives, the deficit of remote school is not severe.”

Then there are those multiple-choice moments where the best answer is to revel in their absurdity.

“Milana had a world-record meltdown where you wonder is it autism or toddlerism or a powerful mix?” Martinez said. “I had to take her outside and we both got drenched in sweat walking and running and screaming through the neighborhood.

“We will look back on it and laugh. Eventually.”

Torres Casas and her son argued over why he had to write what he considered a pointless essay on “Why Respect is Important.” Flustered and weary in her unfamiliar role as adjunct teacher, she knew Santiago was right and she could not justify writing on such an obvious thesis, so she simply demanded he finish the assignment in 90 minutes.

“He showed it to me. I said, ‘Santi, you’ve got to fix this. It is typed in capital letters. You can’t write in all caps because it makes it look like you are angry,’” Torres Casas said. “’Well, OK, mom,’ he said. ‘But I am angry.’”

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