Special needs kids navigate remote learning with better outcomes

For more than 80 million U.S. students, school will never be the same since the 2019-2020 school year was abruptly interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. The subsequent scramble for educators and parents to establish new learning protocols in the world of special needs students and keep students engaged in remote schoolwork has been marked by controversy and criticism with some signs of enlightenment shining through.

But for the 7 million students with learning disabilities, the COVID crisis would prove especially challenged. Each of those promising young charges deserves a quality learning experience – pandemic or not. Pre-pandemic schooling required individually tailored programs for special needs students according to an Individual Education Plan as prescribed by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Atlanta Public School mom Dominique Hill is an outspoken advocate for teen daughters, Brittany, 16, and Aiesha, 14, both of whom continue to participate exclusively in online only classes. Both girls attended Atlanta Public Schools and when the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, they like millions of other students around the nation moved to the online learning platform. And while the idea of taking classes online was at first novel, the challenges of the learning divide initially took a toll on the family.

Aiesha, who has autism and muscular dystrophy is on the rainbow of disabilities from attention deficient disorder to dyslexia and expressive language disorder to reading disability.

“Since my daughter’s first day of school I have been an advocate i.e., active parent who sat in the principal or some other administrator’s office to ensure my child’s progress,” said Hill. “But in the first week of the online learning program it appeared that we are all working through the process and figuring it out together. It was pretty much a piecemeal approach, starting with me having to purchase three laptops in a single day, not knowing that we need Chromebooks for the girls’ assignments.”

APS, at the start of the pandemic, with no idea of the depth and breadth of the pandemic, distributed 40,000 iPads and Chromebooks to households in underserved communities or those that identified with financial hardship. The Hill girls were sharing the sole home computer, which meant that one, usually Asley, could not begin her daily online classes until younger sister Aesha had been completed her school day.

And while APS provided 40,000 Chromebooks and iPads for it’s young charges in order to ensure every student had the technical tools needed, Aesha’s school issued device ceased working during the second week of classes.

“I’ve always been an advocate for my children, especially Aesha since she has learning and physical challenges.” The slender brown skinned 14-year old girl with amazingly thick eyebrows and a closed mouth smile works diligently to follow lesson plans, complete homework assignments, take tests and eek out some personal attention in her 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.

“But this has been especially difficult since we were thrown into this new world of online learning without any plan or preparation. APS school officials in responding this indefinite period of learning limbo issued a 72-page Parent Virtual Learning Handbook, at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. The handbook is primarily a guide to online technology, not the how-to learning guide for parents of challenged and non-challenged students we were hoping for.”

“For me the learning is pretty much the same as it was in school … if not better. At first it was daunting to tackle being a working mom and suddenly a teacher for my girls.”

Although the assurances of Individualized Learning Plans were designed to ensure that “children will not be denied quality school and educational opportunities based upon their disabilities.” But the IEP plan was developed in the time of in-school learning, a concept which requires the full participation of school boards, principals, school faculty and Americans With Disabilities Compliance Officers to achieve novel learning conditions.

New protocols for attendance, homework, tests, and personal attention in a digital environment will require modifications to fully accommodate special learners.

“Special students with learning disabilities tend to learn better in the online environment, but institutions are not doing enough to meet their needs,” according to Rob Kelly of In Online Education.

Meanwhile, Aesha, a slender brown girl with gorgeously thick eyebrows and a closed mouth smile is working her current IEP plan with the assistance of family. “But this has been especially difficult since we were thrown into this new world of online learning without any plan or preparation. We, including the teachers were just figuring things out as we went along.”

Hill, like most parents of students in special learning online classes is immersed in the age old fight for mainstream learning for Aesha and quick to make the distinction that the virtual learning her special daughter gets rivals – if not exceeds – the relatively conventional education her 16-year-old receives. Essentially her in-school learning plan mirrors her online learning. It included

“Aesha’s classes required that I work side by side with her to explain and reinforce the teachers instructions and assignments, after which I would get on the phone with her teachers to clarify the assignment and discuss Aesha’s progress,” explained Hill, a working single mom and events planner for a private Atlanta country club.

“Last year she had assignments like class competitions to create a dress from toilet tissue and paint her face with kabuki style makeup. She got high marks for both, but I didn’t know how these assignments would accomplish our goal of preparing her to compete in a post-secondary world.”

Hill is positive about the education her special needs student is getting in the new school year though. She appreciates replacing the limited number of books and traditional learning tools with a digital platform, essentially crossing the great digital divide kids in underserved communities face.

“In this new school year, I am not seeing a number of improvements in the online curriculum for special needs kids. I actually think things are getting better. They’re able to share the information they would eventually get from books in a much bigger and global way. I believe that an offshoot of the new learning environment is that she is becoming more familiar with technology. I just make sure she is in the right classroom and assess what she needs from me.”

Hill emphasizes that regular interaction with online instructors has been key to a rewarding learning experience for Aesha. “If you don’t do interact, you are doing your child a disservice.”

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