MINNEAPOLIS — Lisa Juliar was resolved when distance learning began last spring: She’d do whatever she could to offer her son the kind of one-on-one assistance he’d been getting at school.

But even with her help, Cooper, a senior at Mounds View High School, has struggled mightily with distance learning. He has a rare chromosomal condition called Cri-du-chat that affects his speech and language, and he’s had trouble expressing himself during Zoom classes. He sometimes grows so frustrated he starts screaming, grabbing at his mother’s hair and even slamming the laptop shut.

“These are not behaviors he had in school,” Juliar said. “It’s not that the teachers aren’t doing as much as they can, but distance learning just isn’t working for my son.”

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The pandemic school year that has frustrated so many is proving almost impossible for many of Minnesota’s 148,000 special education students. Despite the creativity of teachers working to engage students online, the success of distance learning for special education students often hinges on the child’s independence or a parent’s assistance throughout the school day. Teachers and aides are overwhelmed with paperwork for changing learning models and are finding it more difficult to virtually assess students’ moods and needs.

In an executive order in November, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz urged school districts to prioritize in-person instruction for students with disabilities, and the state’s Safe Learning Plan allows schools to offer in-school support to special education students if it’s safe to do so, even if the district is in distance learning. But it’s up to districts to determine whether to offer one-on-one, in-person support in the home.

Still, there are success stories. Distance learning has pushed some students with disabilities to find new ways to communicate their needs, and parents are forming stronger partnerships with special education staff.

“There’s certainly a lot of frustration, but also so many dedicated parents and people at the schools making sure these students are succeeding,” said Daron Korte, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Education.

And there may be change ahead: Walz announced last month that Minnesota elementary schools can open for full in-person instruction starting Jan. 18, if they meet safety requirements.

Confronting challenges

The ever-shifting school year has required teachers and families to create individualized education programs for distance, hybrid and in-person learning. As Tracy Detloff, a middle school special education teacher in the New London-Spicer School District in central Minnesota, put it: “The amount of paperwork right now, dealing with this pandemic and special education, is insurmountable.”

On a recent school day, David Perry documented every time his 13-year-old son had trouble with distance learning. Nico has Down syndrome and autism and communicates mostly nonverbally. Perry listened in and noted the times Nico stopped engaging or communicated in a way that didn’t translate over the screen. By afternoon, his tally topped 100.

“We as parents are pushed to talk about the things my son can’t do, and that’s just brutal,” Perry said. “It’s true he can’t type a password into the computer or open an e-mail to get a Zoom link … That only works if there’s someone actually in the room with him — if he has an aide or if I quit my job.”

At the start of the month, the Perry family hired Nico’s personal care assistant to also help him with distance learning in the Mounds View district, which isn’t currently contracting with providers for in-home services.

Partnering with third-party contractors can introduce issues of accountability and concerns about rate of pay and qualifications, said Colin Sokolowski, a spokesman for Mounds View schools. The district will evaluate the option throughout the pandemic and is focused on bringing students back as quickly and safely as possible, he said.

“I just want my son educated — that is really my driving force,” Perry said.

Mounds View schools is beginning to open school buildings this month to some students, including Nico and Cooper, for in-person help with online learning four days a week. But Perry worries about that fifth day of the school week, as well as potential COVID-19 exposure.

Juliar is concerned about Cooper’s future. At 19, he is to receive job readiness training to help special education students transition into adulthood — but that’s all online, too.

“We are going to have a whole group of kids who can’t just bounce back from this,” she said. “Losing these months is so much bigger for them.”

Struggles and solutions

Switching from in-person to remote learning and back again has been tough on students who are used to routine, said Erika Frison-ZayZay, who works with students in District 287, a specialized district that serves west metro students with complex learning and behavioral needs. When they were in-person, staff absences due to quarantine or illness meant students were constantly working with unfamiliar people. COVID-19 safety measures meant students couldn’t use shared spaces that were usually a part of their day, like the gym or the school library.

Frison-ZayZay is glad many of her students have parents at home with them, helping to keep them on track. But it’s still often an uphill battle to keep everyone focused.

“Students with disabilities are more successful with consistency,” she said. “Closing, and opening, in-person, remote changes — it’s hard for them.”

Despite the difficulties, distance learning for special education has brought about some unexpected benefits. Brian Rappe, a special education teacher at Nicollet Middle School in Burnsville, has spent the school year working with students who opted for the district’s full-time distance learning option. He has noticed students are more willing to speak up when they need assistance.

Tara Tuchel, a speech/language pathologist in Stillwater schools, has noticed the same thing, even among students who can have trouble with verbal language.

Virtual learning has also strengthened the relationships she has with parents and meant more individualized strategies, she said. Creating fun virtual activities takes more time and problem-solving, but it’s rewarding to see it work, Tuchel said.

Susan Herrlein, the mother of a 6-year-old at Stillwater’s Rutherford Elementary, said her daughter’s teachers have taught her as well.

“They’ve helped us learn how to be better parents,” Herrlein said. “Our daughter is nonverbal so she couldn’t come home to tell me how her day was — but now I can actually see how she learns.”

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