KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even though the school year for Gwen Benegas’ son was scheduled to continue through May, his education essentially ended when the district transitioned its classes online this March.

During a normal school year, her son Ryan attends classes to work on math, reading, horticulture and interpersonal skills. But being blind and having autism has meant he can’t attend virtual classes like many of his peers.

He participated in some music therapy sessions over video chat, but with few Braille resources at home and no other options from the school, Benegas said, Ryan hasn’t been able to build on key social and comprehension skills he’ll need now that he finished his senior year in the Olathe school district.

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“He’s stagnant. I don’t feel like he’s lost anything, but he’s definitely not really learned anything either,” Benegas said. “He had met a lot of his goals, but you always want to improve on those things.”

When schools across the country shut their doors in March to prevent the spread of coronavirus, some parents worried that their children would fall behind on biology lessons and algebra problems. But for parents of students with disabilities, whose lessons may also focus on social skills or physical therapy, it feels like their children haven’t made progress on important skills in months.

As schools consider fall reopenings, special education programs are wondering how to make up for lost ground in socially distanced classrooms where they can no longer use hands-on teaching and physical therapy techniques to help their students.

Kara Resseguie’s class at Sherwood Autism Center is usually filled with conversation. Students work on social, emotional and vocational skills by talking with one another and heading out for weekly lunches to prepare them for life after graduation. But when Sherwood, a school that serves students with autism and other developmental disabilities, moved online in March, Resseguie and other teachers had to alter their lesson plans.

Resseguie can send math packets or other lessons, but it’s harder to track progress on students’ social skills, like maintaining appropriate distance in conversations or taking turns while talking, during a 30-minute weekly video chat. She and other teachers meet each week to share materials and work through technical issues.

Parents worry that with continued online learning through the summer and plans at Sherwood being uncertain for the fall, their students’ social and physical progress will lag. For students with autism, who often struggle with transition periods, Resseguie expects the potential shift to an in-person environment that will look far different from the one students are used to will present challenges.

“When they come back, they’re going to be different. We’re going to be different,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult, but I have faith in our program and our kids and our families, and we will come out of this stronger.”

The transition to online

Special education programs around the area called parents to reassess students’ individualized education programs, understand what resources they could access and send instructions to help them work through lessons at home. In many cases, academic goals could be addressed in distance learning, but lessons involving physical therapy, occupational therapy and social skills with peers were less accessible.

At Platte County R-3 School District, IEP goals shifted to better reflect students’ current needs. Many of the skills they couldn’t work on, like sharing materials with peers or concentrating in a large group setting, may not present a problem when they’re on a video call at home. Once they return to in-person operations, the skills they couldn’t work on will be reassessed and worked into lesson plans, said Jen Beutel, the district’s director of pupil services.

JaKyta Lawrie, the assistant director of special education at Kansas City Public Schools, expects more assessments at the beginning of this coming school year to decide how goals and lessons need to change for each student’s altered needs. The district also created a hotline for families to call to help work through lessons with teacher support.

To help students with the skills they couldn’t work on through a screen, Samantha Poindexter, the director of special education at North Kansas City School District, said her district tried to send any resources that could bridge the gap, like instructions for at-home physical therapy. Poindexter recognizes that these services don’t provide the same results as in-person sessions and that some parents don’t have the time to guide their children through hands-on lessons.

“All students have lost and will continue to lose skills because of COVID-19 and the closures, and (special education) kids are no different,” she said.

Planning a safe fall

To prepare for potential in-person operations, the Platte County R-3 School District purchased face shields for its special education teachers to help students who rely on facial cues for communication. Beutel said masks would be recommended for students if school returns, and teachers will need to show and remind students to practice social distancing.

For students with compromised immune systems, Poindexter said schools will also need to continue to work on their distribution of online learning. Surveys of parents at North Kansas City School District will also determine whether they feel safe sending their children to school and how realistic it is for students to wear masks throughout the day, Lawrie said.

That’s what worries Laura Robeson, whose son Danny’s cerebral palsy, epilepsy and optic nerve hypoplasia also cause him to have a weakened immune system. Her family has only been in a few buildings since mid-March for necessary medical appointments. When the physical therapist comes, she stands in the driveway and instructs Robeson at a 10-foot distance.

As a former teacher, Robeson understands the struggle schools have to balance the educational and health needs of all students. She likely won’t let her son take the risk of returning to third grade in the Shawnee Mission School District this fall but knows her ability to help him at home can’t compare to sessions with his teachers and therapists.

“It breaks my heart to think about the options that schools and families and kids are facing,” she said. “It is truly a no-win.”

With more time to plan for the upcoming school year, Robeson hopes to schedule video calls with Danny’s therapists to continue his progress.

Benegas also wonders about her son’s ability to return in the fall. She wants him to start the school’s vocational training for adult students in the special education program, but his asthma and other respiratory issues make him more susceptible to respiratory illnesses like coronavirus.

As a paraprofessional at Olathe East High School, Benegas works with other students in special education programs.

She’s seen students struggle with concentration during video sessions and decline in their reading, math and interpersonal skills, but wonders about the possibility of a safe return in the fall. Will her students keep a mask on for a full day? Would overworked parents keep sick children home? And can much of the hands-on special education curriculum her students are accustomed to even operate if students and teachers need to keep their distance?

Right now, she’s not optimistic about any of it.

“It’s like we’re going to have to be in space suits or something and put the kids in space suits,” Benegas said. “I just don’t think it’s going to keep them healthy. To me, that’s more important than education for them at this point and that’s sad.”

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