NEW ORLEANS — Like many parents, Georgina Ledet is concerned about coronavirus as school resumes this fall, especially because family and friends have died from the disease. But despite the pandemic, the Slidell mother of two daughters with special needs is adamant about one thing: Her girls need to return to the classroom.

Ledet knows families who are choosing to keep their children with special needs at home because of immune system problems. “But Adara has always seemed to be one of the healthier kids, and she needs to be in school,” Ledet said of her 14-year-old. “She is regressing something fierce. She only barely knows subtraction and addition, and she’s pretty much lost subtraction.”

Loss of skills since schools were shuttered in mid-March is one big issue that families of children in special education — who number more than 80,000 in Louisiana — are grappling with as a new school year dawns against the backdrop of a pandemic. And while all families have to navigate the changes wrought by COVID-19 — from hybrid learning to social distancing in the classroom — children with special needs face even greater challenges.

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For some students in special education, the mask requirement alone is daunting. Ledet says Adara has muscle weakness that causes her to drool; Slidell Junior High is allowing her to use a face shield because it’s a medical issue.

For other children, a mask can be troubling because of sensory issues. Marrero mother Dawn LeBlanc says her 14-year-old daughter, Bailey, won’t wear her glasses, much less a mask. “She freaks out on me, pushes it away, kicks at me, everything.”

In-person school simply isn’t an option for some families. Revé Pounds, of Covington, says her fourth grader suffers from severe anxiety, triggered by contamination fears. They will homeschool this year.

And Karen Scallan’s son Kevin had been excited about returning to Destrehan High School. Although he graduated in May, children with disabilities can continue to go to school through age 21, and Kevin, who has Down syndrome and autism, was eager to be back with his friends.

But Kevin also has congenital heart defects and has had multiple open-heart surgeries. “After talking to his cardiologist, it was, ‘Nope, nope, nope, he is not one of the ones who can go back,'” Scallan said.

Instead, Kevin is enrolled in St. Charles Parish’s virtual school. “We’re on day three,” she said one recent day of virtual classes. “We’re not really sure how things will flush out with Kevin. Some things, he gravitates toward the computer.”

But she worries about how he’ll do with online learning when it comes to reading and reading comprehension, where he has more deficits.

But virtual school does allow Kevin to have class every day, something Scallan says is critical for him.

“Anytime you change our kids’ schedule, what they routinely do, it’s an upheaval,” she said. “It takes time to get back into a routine, especially when you change on a dime, like in March.”

Mary Jacobs, executive director of Families Helping Families of Greater New Orleans, said that parents of children in special education who she works with are split 50/50 on the question of returning to the classroom.

“Some (are) very fearful. Others are ready to send them back and recognize that they don’t get the same quality of education virtually as they do in front of a teacher,” she said.

Some parents say virtual learning doesn’t work at all for their children.

“She doesn’t have a good attention span,” LeBlanc said of her daughter. “It is a little scary, knowing my child is going into a class with other children, other adults, and I don’t know what they have been doing.”

Parents of students in special education got a sample of virtual learning in the months after schools were closed last spring, and it didn’t go well, according to Jacobs. She heard repeatedly from parents that services in the students’ individual education programs were not being provided and that services like speech, occupational and physical therapy were difficult to provide online.

Brandy Bourgeois, of Kenner, said she received emails from her 11-year-old son’s speech therapist on how to work with him at home. “I’m not a speech therapist or an occupational therapist, either. Parents are working at our jobs,” she said. She described the emails as a “how to become a speech therapist in 20 minutes,” and said it didn’t go well.

“My child has definitely regressed,” she said of the disruptions caused by the virus.

But Kristi-Jo Preston, executive director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s Division for Diverse Learners, says the state is taking a strong stance on protecting students in special education in light of the shutdown in the spring.

Schools will be required to evaluate every student with a disability to determine if there were losses during the gap and will step in, where considered appropriate, with what is known as compensatory services. That’s help in addition to what students receive in their education plans and is typically provided before or after school or during breaks.

“Not every state has taken that step,” she said.

Jacobs agreed, calling it a smart move, but she said she wonders how aggressively schools will identify kids and how parents will fit in the extra services.

The evaluations are supposed to be done by the end of the first month in school, Preston said, and many schools have already started the process.

The state has made information available online in the form of a family toolbox and a teacher toolbox. The most important thing, she said, is for families to know their rights have not changed. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — a federal law — remains in effect, and those protections are more important than ever in the new situations people will encounter.

For parents, the start of school is full of uncertainty. “There’s no winning way to do this,” said Bourgeois, who feels that coronavirus social distancing requirements have been hard on her children, who attend Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy. The Discovery Schools charter group closed its four campuses last week after a handful of positive cases and will teach all of its students online until Sept. 11.

Ledet said she plans to put both of her daughters on the school bus when classes in St. Tammany Parish start after Labor Day.

“I’m trying to keep it normalish,” she said. “That’s the hard part. The normal kids, they’re not going to socially distance. I know when school starts up, some kids will get it at school, some teachers will get it at school.”

But she still thinks it’s the right thing to do. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We’re leaving the special-ed kids behind.”

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