Special Education Failed During School Closures

Virtual learning makes it difficult to connect with students with unique needs
Kyo Azuma, Unsplash

The last thing my 4th grader did during the spring of 2020 was an annual field trip for Austin. Spring break followed and we took a few family trips to the skating rink and art museum, but by week’s end, the stay-at-home orders arrived. 

Like most of America, all of my children came home and stayed home for the remainder of the school year. For my kids, it was especially heartbreaking. Two of my children were being tutored by the school for dyslexia, and those four times a week small group sessions ended. My son was going to the school twice a week for in-person speech therapy in a small group. Instead, I was reviewing resources posted by the speech therapist and trying to work on them one on one with my 4-year-old. It was sporadic and not as good as the therapist’s instruction.  

In this crisis, our district did its best to provide a curriculum and lessons, and teachers scrambled to adapt and record and create resources for us to use. Our home became busier — 3 school-age kids learning and two preschoolers disrupting the process. Dad was suddenly working from home as well. The district opened up their media carts and sent home Chromebooks and laptops, and we dutifully drove up and signed the paperwork outside with masks. We remained hopeful that students and teachers would do an end-of-year picnic. It never came to pass. 

The summer was filled with conflict and politics. Looking at Europe, it was obvious that in-person education was the better choice. I lived in a state that mandated the availability of in-person schools and encouraged a virtual option. After the virtual-only first 6 weeks, our district provided both in-person and virtual options. Our district had every child in 1st grade and over in live classes with teachers streaming from the school building. The goal was to replicate the in-class experience. It was trying and as soon as the kids were able, the eldest 3 went back to in-person schooling with masks and plexiglass and distancing. The dyslexia tutor allowed for mask-free in-person tutoring and we gratefully accepted. 

My son stayed home for kindergarten because his learning disability was complicated by masked faces. His struggles were with articulation and our original plans were to move from twice to once a week speech because classroom time would help with speech. So instead of being home because of covid concerns, he stayed home to help with his speech issues. He had twice-weekly speech classes and 3 short live sessions each school day with only occasional asynchronous lessons. If my dyslexics were not allowed to go to tutoring mask free, I don’t know what the right choice would have been. My district didn’t talk about the pros and cons of the mode of instruction and I mostly went on intuition. Our teachers did the best they could with a poor situation and tried to keep a traditional in-class experience both in-person and online.

My kids struggled with the masking and distancing rules. Our district didn’t seem to have mask breaks and their rules required students and staff to wear masks outside and in gym class. Some days we had raw hands from the frequent hand sanitizer. We got frequent reminders to wear a fresh mask each day, implying that many kids were re-wearing masks. As the months, went on we were facing the decision of what would best serve our kids the next year. If we didn’t have kids getting services we would have likely switched to homeschooling. Finding out school would be mask-optional in Texas was the best news we had last summer. 

I know many families had it much worse. Kids were kept from in-person learning for over a year. Young elementary students had to try to decipher a /f/ from a /v/ from a /b/ sound in a double-masked classroom and then match it to print. Our major burdens were lifted by a governor who forced public schools to look more like Europe and less like New York. Thousands of kids slipped through the cracks and didn’t get the help they needed. Virtual instruction made identifying and helping these kids much more difficult. Online learning was difficult for everyone, and especially difficult for students with disabilities.

Rita Miller
Rita Miller is a mother in Texas. She graduated from both public high school and public university and has 4 kids in the local public schools.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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