Students With Special Needs And Their Families Struggle To Cope With School Closures

May 8, 2020

School closures triggered by the coronavirus are especially hard on students with disabilities and their families. These students often get one-on-one help at school, along with services like speech and physical therapy. In March, students and families suddenly lost all of that support. 

Balancing Full-Time Jobs And Online Learning

“Our new normal is barely coping,” said John Berges, whose son Theo is a special needs student at Shorewood High School. Berges sent WUWM a voice memo describing his family’s experience. 

Erica Young and son Theo on a bike ride, one of the family's favorite activities during the quarantine.
Credit Courtesy of John Berges and Erica Young

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Both John and his wife, Erica Young, are biological sciences professors at UWM. They had to make the rapid switch to teaching online while trying to help Theo with his online learning. The day they spoke with WUWM, John and Erica balanced a three-hour Ph.D. thesis videoconference with Theo's morning school Zoom session.

“Our days are a little crazy,” said Erica. “We usually do a tag-team thing from about 8:30 to 5:30 where one of us is working upstairs and one of us is working downstairs with Theo or taking him out for a walk.”

Sixteen-year-old Theo is non-verbal and has developmental delays due to a rare genetic disorder. He uses sign language and a communication device to speak with others. Theo says he misses math class, physical education class, and his friends.

“I think it’s the social aspect he misses the most,” Erica said. “First thing in the morning when I’m making breakfast, he asks me about school multiple times. So that’s a bit tough that we have to explain that.”

Shorewood High School special education teacher Mary DeMerit has been connecting with Theo and her other students using live Zoom lessons every day at 10 a.m. DeMerit says the switch to virtual learning is hard for her students, and one of them doesn’t participate in the Zoom classes at all because they’re too overwhelming.

“The virtual side has been a little more difficult for the students who need more one-on-one support throughout the school day,” DeMerit said. “So, we’ve just been doing the best we can with these online meetings.”

Losing A Routine That Takes Time To Establish

Addie Ellis was starting to getting into a groove and adapt to her freshman year at Nicolet High School when the coronavirus crisis hit. Her mom, Terri Hart-Ellis, says since Addie uses an alternative communication device, it takes a while for her to find the teachers and students who she can turn to for support.

Terri Hart-Ellis and her daughter Addie work on Addie's online assignments from Nicolet High School.
Credit Courtesy of Terri Hart-Ellis

“I was so excited about this spring because she was starting to develop those relationships with different people she could trust in her classes,” Terri said.

Addie has a developmental disability and is non-speaking. Using a communication device, she told WUWM how she feels about the school closure.

“I feel frustrated, sorry, confused, disappointed, homesick,” Addie said. “I miss my friends and teachers."

Nicolet quickly transitioned to online learning when schools closed. Terri appreciates the effort but says online classes have been difficult for both her and Addie. It’s harder to motivate Addie to engage with a screen, and Terri feels like she’s “pretending” to be a teacher.

“[When Addie is in school,] there’s a teacher in the classroom, she has a case manager who oversees everything, and then there’s a support person who is also trained,” Terri said. “I am none of those things … I don’t have a grasp on all the content and I certainly have no training on modifying and accommodations.”

Special Education Inconsistent During Shutdown

Diana Becerra, 22, has taken on the role of de facto teacher for her younger brother Diego. He’s a junior at Milwaukee’s Bay View High School. Diego has Down syndrome and normally receives individualized education. Diana says losing the routine and support offered by Diego's school has been tough for him.

Diego Becerra, a student at Milwaukee's Bay View High School, and his older sister Diana.
Credit Courtesy of Diana Becerra

“He seems to have more anxiety, he paces back and forth a lot, he rocks back and forth,” Diana said. “He loves school, so having that taken away kind of threw him off.”

Adding to the challenges, Diana says she’s gotten barely any help from Diego's teachers at Bay View High School, a Milwaukee public school. MPS is offering paper packets and online education tools on its website, but Diana struggles to navigate those resources on her own. 

“I’m trying to work with him with doing math problems, reading problems. But it’s just frustrating because I don’t know his exact level so I don’t know if it’s too easy, if it’s too hard, if he doesn’t want to show me because I’m his sister,” Diana said. “He’s used to his teachers, and I’m sure he works a lot better at school than he does at home because he probably feels like he doesn’t have to take it seriously.”

MPS has faced questions from families about why there isn’t a district-wide standard for remote learning during the shutdown. In an interview in late April, MPS Director of Specialized Services Jennifer Mims-Howell said special education teachers were told to reach out to families, but it will be left up to teachers to determine how to support each student.

“One teacher may choose to do a Google Classroom, that’s not what all teachers may choose to do,” Mims-Howell said. “Online learning may not be for all students with disabilities, a phone call may be better. There may also be students working on goals that may not require the academic approach, it may be speech services where a parent can be shown a couple different activities that the speech pathologist has been working on with the student.”

Mims-Howell said MPS would start conducting individualized education plan (IEP) meetings remotely in late April. IEPs dictate education goals and accommodations for students with disabilities. District officials say there are around 7,000 IEP reviews due between now and the summer. 

Disability advocacy groups have concerns about the disparities in special education during this prolonged school closure. 

“What school districts are doing is all over the map,” said Monica Murphy, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Many of the bigger districts aren’t really doing anything as far as special ed is concerned, so that’s problematic. Kids aren’t getting anything and they’re falling farther behind in districts where they were already behind to begin with.”

Murphy says one major problem is that federal guidance around special education requirements during the pandemic has been unclear. But in late April, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a directive with more clarity: she said schools would not be exempt from providing students with disabilities equal access to education, even if this must be accomplished remotely.

One Day At A Time
Jacob Hauman works on a spelling exercise. His mom, Kim, is a special education paraprofessional who is using her experience to keep Jacob learning during the shutdown.
Credit Courtesy of Kim Hauman

During the school shutdown, Kim and Michael Hauman have felt grateful for Kim's experience as an MPS special education paraprofessional. Their son Jacob has Down syndrome and is a student at Milwaukee School of Languages, an MPS high school.

"If I didn't have [special education teaching] experience, we would be really lost as to what to do," Kim said in an interview in mid-April. "For special needs children, there really isn't anything out there right now."

Kim says they do some school work every morning. Recently, Jacob has been reviewing letters and the sounds they make.

The family is trying to create a new routine, but Jacob still asks every day about school.

"He really does miss being busy," Michael said. "Hopefully he can pick back up when school restarts."

Kim added, "Every day we just try to go with whatever life throws at ya. We're doing OK."

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