YAKIMA, Wash. — Kelli Weaver found herself fumbling as she tried to apply teaching guides from her second-grade son’s classroom to math and reading lessons at home. The effort would often end in meltdowns rather than learning.

Parker, an 8-year-old in a high-performing autism class at the Yakima School District’s Gilbert Elementary School, was accustomed to a certain structure in his classroom. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t be in school suddenly when buildings statewide closed in mid-March. His mom was managing his behavioral, medical and schooling needs on top of her usual daytime responsibilities. Parker’s social and verbal skills began to regress and Weaver feared his academic progress from the school year would follow.

Statewide, roughly 143,000 students are eligible for special education and related services, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. As many as 8,000 students in Yakima County and 2,500 in the Yakima School District have disabilities.

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Parents of children with disabilities reported higher levels of stress as a result of the pandemic, according to the results of a poll of Washington parents released by the national equity nonprofit Education Trust. Among them, 62 percent said they were particularly concerned about ensuring their child did not fall behind academically while at home — slightly more than Washington parents overall, at 58 percent.

While it’s too early for firm research to convey learning trends among special education students during the closures, teachers and officials agree it’s a concern. The state has said these students are among those who should be prioritized moving forward, since the in-person support many require wasn’t available during remote learning.

Whether school is in person or at a distance this fall, school officials are working on ways to better help special education students learn.

Spring challenges

With the closure of school campuses, parents scrambled to replicate the work of their students’ specialized teachers, from core courses to occupational and speech therapists. Teachers on the other end tried to support parents and make meaningful connections from a distance. Together, they had to agree to new learning priorities, as legally enforced individualized education programs, or IEPs, were made flexible to accommodate the circumstances of the pandemic.

Parents and educators say meeting the needs of special education students during remote learning was a particularly challenging task, since support for special education students is individualized.

One special education teacher in Zillah reported taking a whiteboard to his students and providing one-on-one lessons in their yards while practicing social distancing.

Another in Yakima said she had to find new teaching materials with directions in Spanish so monolinguistic parents could navigate the materials.

A local school speech therapist posted daily language assignments online for students to do at home, focusing one-on-one video calls with students on those with the highest need in an effort to reach all of her roughly 70 students.

Dana Floyd, director of special services at Educational Service District 105, an agency that provides support to area school districts, oversees programs ranging from occupational therapy to autism and vision groups that districts throughout the Valley rely on. She said a primary focus for her team was maintaining relationships with students. Video calls that kept students connected with each other and their teachers — like short calls to share jokes — offered more than strictly academics. Floyd said this helped maintain students’ social-emotional well-being, and many of these programs saw close to full participation.

But across programs, teachers said engagement among special education students varied significantly.

For Anny Broom, who teaches the high-skills K-2 autism class at Gilbert Elementary that Weaver is in, parent engagement was a big indicator of student outcomes. Broom needed parents to help students log in to learning platforms. Some parents asked for more support than others. In Weaver’s case, Broom devoted half-hour slots in her day to one-on-one video calls to work through core materials with him, helping address some of his mom’s concerns and provide more structure for the second grader.

Beyond that, some parents spent hours alongside their children working through course materials, while others struggled to prioritize coursework, said Broom. She said one of her students’ families struggled with food security and cases of COVID-19, making school a lower priority.

At the high school level, East Valley special programs instructor Donelda Heilman said 30 percent of the 31 students she supports participated in remote learning. She works predominantly with juniors and seniors in subjects like reading comprehension, a skill she said students could easily fall behind in if they aren’t actively reading or following along to audio books. Heilman said she also struggled to track student progress, despite regular calls to parents. Some families seemed bogged down by check-ins, in which case she backed off.

Floyd said teachers and their respective districts were “very concerned” about academic backsliding among special education students, including those who were engaged in the spring.

“There will be some regression of all students in the state, not just students with disabilities,” she said. “But our students with disabilities will most definitely suffer because they do need extra support.”

Progress and moving forward

Schools statewide are expected to resume in-person schooling in the fall. Services geared at filling gaps in learning created by COVID-19 will be extended to all students.

For special education students, this could mean offering behavioral skills training to families or providing speech coaching or one-on-one tutoring services to students, according to a draft OSPI document of reopening guidance for special education. This could be offered both over the summer and in the fall.

The state has also said that special education students should be prioritized in the fall. They could be among the first to return to campus in the case of partial reopenings, for example — something Yakima School District officials have said they would do in case of a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning.

While IEP goals were made flexible this spring, they are expected to return to normal in the fall. That means schools will be held legally accountable once again if students don’t meet previously outlined learning objectives agreed upon with parents.

Schools should have been monitoring student progress and know where to pick up this summer or fall to help students, said Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education at OSPI. Federal coronavirus relief funds should help schools cover the cost of these efforts.

The state also expects that some of these services should be safely delivered in-person this fall, now that more information about transmission and safety is available, Gallo said.

The draft guidance for special education in the fall suggests that if students can’t wear a face mask because of difficulty controlling saliva, for example, a face shield could be used instead. Physical distancing could also be flexible for young or high-need students.

All arrangements should be agreed upon at an individual level by parents and school staff to ensure students’ safety, Gallo said. She pointed to preliminary research that students with cognitive disabilities may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as something to consider.

Campuses closed?

Andrea Kadlec, a staff attorney for statewide nonprofit Disability Rights Washington, said even if schools were to return to remote learning — something all districts are required to plan for — it’s important that the highest-need special education students have in-person learning. She said students who have autism or are blind won’t see the same educational opportunity online or at home, for example. They need hand-over-hand instruction.

Kadlec suggested that in-person services for these students should be considered essential.

Gallo said a decision like that is up to the governor.

To offer in-person, one-on-one education, provisions are needed to keep educators and students safe, Floyd of ESD 105 said.

“One-to-one teaching is really not something we can do unless we know the student is safe and staff are safe and students can wear (personal protective equipment), which typically is not the case with students who have choking (risk) or are medically fragile,” Floyd said. “There’s really so many complications that districts have to work through.”

It’s a work in progress, Kadlec and Gallo agreed. But all three officials agreed strides were being made on behalf of the tens of thousands of students and parents this affects.

“The thing that I am most hopeful about is that in the spring, we really did not have much warning and districts had to facilitate this changeover really, really quickly,” Gallo said. “We’ve had an opportunity to see where the gaps are and identify things that need to be adjusted to be more effective, and districts now have time to plan. So I’m hopeful that we’ll see improvements based on that, and I also appreciate … that everyone is working together to try to meet the needs of students.”

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