Coronavirus school reopening complicates life for students with special needs

©The State (Columbia, S.C.)

JOSHUA BOUCHER/The State/TNS

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Everything Denise Jolly is struggling from, thousands of other South Carolinians have been struggling with amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But very few of them are struggling with it all at once.

Jolly is a cancer patient and the mother of two boys, one of whom is in gifted classes, and the other is on the autism spectrum.

“Our situation is more extreme than most are facing, but I know there are a lot of special needs parents in Columbia,” Jolly told The State.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the disadvantages special needs students face on a normal basis have been magnified, experts said. With their individualized curricula, teaching methods and medical care disrupted by coronavirus, it has become more difficult for special needs children to get what they need to learn, especially if the service is best conducted in-person, such as physical therapy or hands-on learning.

Her son Isaiah, a fifth grader who is on the autism spectrum, was getting one to two hours of personalized help per day from his teachers once virtual classes began, she said.

But her son needs personal interaction with teachers; he needs a routine, and his parents and teachers need to make sure he doesn’t get overstimulated by being in front of a screen for too long, she said.

“If you are overstimulated, you could be off the rails for the next three days,” Jolly said of Isaiah.

“He has really struggled,” Jolly said.

But personal interaction with his teachers right now is just too risky, Jolly said. Cancer patients are thought to be at increased risk of serious COVID 19 complications because of their compromised immune systems, according to the American Cancer Society.

One of the most pressing challenges as schools seek to reopen has been how to treat students who have special needs, disabilities or something called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. IEPs are formed by teachers, parents, disabilities professionals and sometimes the students themselves to find ways to best teach the student, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

IEPs can include a variety of services including speech-language pathology, physical therapy, medical services, counseling and more, according to the department.

Part of the reason special education is so challenging right now is because every special ed student — regardless of the diagnosis — needs something slightly different, said Amy Holbert, the CEO of Family Connection South Carolina, a federally funded organization that connects parents of special needs children with health care, education and other services.

For example, three students with Down syndrome will need three different education plans. One of those students may need speech therapy, another may need physical therapy and some may need both, Holbert said.

Amid the volatile coronavirus landscape, it is even more difficult than usual for special education teachers to plan for how to teach their students, Holbert said.

Recently, Holbert said she spoke to a mother whose son was in special needs courses and the son had personalized goals to interact with others face-to-face for designated periods of time to build his social skills.

Should that student be stuck at home, it’s unclear how he would learn social skills, Holbert said.

Because special education is so personalized, it can be more expensive than mainstream education, making it even more important for government agencies to secure funding, Holbert said.

“We need to make sure our public schools have the funding to support whatever creative and innovative methods of instruction and methods of engagement for special education students,” Holbert said.

The differences in mental health are especially pronounced among those diagnosed with autism, said Kim Thomas, the interim president and CEO of the S.C. Autism Society.

“All people on the spectrum are different,” Thomas said. “While some people may do better in a structured environment, some prefer virtual learning.”

But the coronavirus often narrows families’ options, forcing some special education students to learn online who may not do well in that environment.

“It is making it difficult for children to get the instruction they need because they are not getting that one-on-one time,” Thomas said.

The S.C. Department of Education has allocated an additional $10 million for districts to help care for students who have special needs, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman testified before state lawmakers last month.

Coronavirus can also be especially threatening both physically and mentally to some special needs students.

Sometimes, special needs children have a condition that compromises their immune system, making it riskier for them to re-enter a physical classroom, even as coronavirus cases decrease, Spearman and Holbert said.

Even for those who have healthy immune systems, a hospital trip can be mentally and emotionally “devastating” to children with autism because of how thoroughly it would change their environment and routine, Thomas said.

“They wouldn’t understand it,” Thomas said.

The ramifications of a possible hospital trip also give many parents pause before having tutors come over to their houses or before sending children to school.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about parents having to take their kids into class,” Thomas said.

Quarantine has also been challenging for special education teachers who are having to go the extra mile just to make sure their students aren’t falling too far behind, said Kathy Maness, the executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Maness has seen it personally. Her son Jonathan, a senior at River Bluff High School, suffered from a traumatic brain injury when he was five and has been in special education classes for most of his life, Maness said.

As a result of his left frontal lobe injury, Jonathan struggled to develop fine motor skills such as writing and tying his shoes, Maness said. As a result, Jonathan needs more time than other students to absorb lessons, take tests and more, Maness said.

Jonathan also needs face-to-face interaction, which is why he will be doing “hybrid” classes — a mix of virtual and in-person classes — once school starts back up.

“He truly struggles,” Maness said. “The virtual did not work for us.”

In the spring, when schools were closed and students were forced to go online for classes, Jonathan’s special education teacher, “Coach Crocker,” would come over to the house, sit on the back deck with Jonathan and tutor him for hours at a time.

“Special ed teachers are a different breed,” Maness said.

“All teachers are heroes, but special needs teachers are superheroes,” Maness said.

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©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

The Jolly family walk up stairs at Riverfront Park on Saturday, July 19, 2020. Denise Jolly is a cancer survivor, and it is important to the family that no one in the family gets the coronavirus. - JOSHUA BOUCHER/The State/TNS
Isaiah Jolly, 10, washes the dishes at his family’s home on Friday, July 17, 2020. This fall he and his younger brother will not attend in person school to help protect them from the coronavirus. - JOSHUA BOUCHER/The State/TNS