RALEIGH, N.C. — The past year has robbed many Americans of their lives, but it’s also robbed many children with special needs like Jaiden Rodgers of the education they should have received.

Jaiden, 6, who has speech and cognitive difficulties, has received most of his classes virtually since last March because of schools being closed for in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a frustrating year for his mother, Laurel Farrar, as she’s watched Jaiden regress while learning at their home in Chatham County near Chapel Hill.

“I can’t think of a single thing he’s learned this year,” Farrar said in an interview with The News & Observer. “It’s like he’s lost rather than gained.”

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Farrar’s experiences in the Chatham County school system aren’t unique. Families of special education students across North Carolina and the U.S. have been vocal about how pandemic-related school closures are setting their children back.

Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. These students have an individualized education program (IEP) that lays out accommodations that schools will make to help them learn.

But the pandemic has caused school districts to scale back or eliminate some special education services or switch to offering them virtually.

“We’re struggling with school districts that are unilaterally decreasing the amount of specially designed instruction in a student’s IEP,” Stacey Gahagan, a Durham attorney representing Farrar, said in an interview. “Some are doing across-the-board reductions.”

Melvin Diggs executive director of exceptional children and advanced and intellectually gifted children for Chatham County Schools, said he can’t discuss specific cases due to federal privacy laws. But he said schools have been trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

“I know we’re not perfect,” Diggs said in an interview. “I understand parents are having challenges, and we’re having challenges. But we’re trying to problem solve it and at the end of the day, I want to be known as an organization that’s responsive to parents.”

‘He needs that one-on-one instruction’

Education in North Carolina took a major shift last March when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all public schools closed for in-person instruction. It was a major change for the state’s 183,000 students with disabilities, who account for 12% of the public-school enrollment.

When the state order came, Diggs said schools had to quickly come up with a plan to help all students, especially vulnerable students with special needs. This included making sure students were able to get online to learn virtually, he said.

“The biggest challenge was to make sure kids were OK,” Diggs said. “There were times when you had to run down parents and kids.”

The evaluations that are part of the process for serving special education students and identifying new ones were delayed. For instance, the Wake County school system stopped evaluating special education students last year between March and June.

Complicating the situation, according to Gahagan, is that North Carolina school districts can change IEP plans without parental consent.

The switch to all-virtual instruction exacerbated what was already a difficult kindergarten year for Farrar. She said the spring was a nightmare for her as she sought outside resources to try to replace what Jaiden had been getting at school.

“He needs that one-on-one instruction vs. the virtual instruction because there’s been a lot of times, as a matter of fact 95% of the time, he closes the computer because he can’t understand and learn that way,” Farrar said.

The final straw for Farrar came over the summer during an online speech therapy session provided by the district. Even though Jaiden had walked away from the computer, Farrar said the speech therapist talked for eight more minutes telling him what a good job he was doing.

“Where is that obligation to take steps to ensure that a child can access that virtual instruction that is provided?” Gahagan said. “From our perspective, it’s not enough to say that the teacher was there virtually.”

‘A really bleak situation for some of these families’

Last July, a national class-action federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of special education students to try to force schools to provide in-person instruction. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Many special education students are getting limited or no in-person instruction. The post-holiday COVID-19 spike caused several districts, including Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, to suspend in-person classes through at least mid-February.

State Republican lawmakers have announced they plan to file legislation that would require school districts to offer in-person instruction, The News & Observer reported.

As part of the return to in-person instruction, students have been required to wear face coverings. But there are exceptions, such as for students who can’t wear them due to health or behavioral condition.

Gahagan said some schools are refusing to grant the mask exceptions to students with disabilities.

“It’s a really bleak situation for some of these families,” Gahagan said. “When you’re supposed to have a mask exemption and it’s denied and public school is your only option, what is your option at this time?”

Chatham County has been offering students two days a week of in-person instruction since October.

The days Jaiden attends first-grade classes at Chatham Grove Elementary School have been a godsend for Farrar.

“He is willing and ready to learn,” Farrar said. “He’s very motivated to learn. I could see him just sprouting.”

But it still leaves Jaiden with three days a week of online classes.

Virtual services for special education students

Diggs said Chatham County is in a better position now than it was last spring to provide virtual services to special education students.

One of the biggest changes, Diggs said, is Chatham became the first district in the state to use PresenceLearning, an online program designed to serve special education students. He said the program has allowed teachers to interact with their students online and to assess their development.

While nothing can replace having an in-person teacher, Diggs said the pandemic has shown that technology can be used creatively to help students learn.

“Some services need to be done in-person, but there are a lot of services that have been done in a virtual way and will continue to be done in a virtual way,” Diggs said.

Farrar isn’t a fan of PresenceLearning or the other online services that have been offered to her son.

“At the end of the day he’s still behind a computer screen,” Farrar said. “It’s not helping him.”

Farrar works from home but she says it’s hard doing her job as a health program coordinator when she also has to help Jaiden.

“It’s very difficult and many times I fall behind,” Farrar said. “I just do the best I can. Sometimes my work has to fall short because my children are my first priority.”

Nearly a year into the pandemic, Gahagan said employers aren’t as willing to give workers the time to help their kids in virtual learning. She says the solution is to bring students, especially students with special needs, back to daily in-person instruction.

‘These students already had struggles before the pandemic’

The long-term educational impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities is not yet known.

Diggs said some special education students will show growth over the past year with the help of the technology that’s supplementing what teachers are providing.

“Certainly remote learning is not a way to provide all support for a particular child, but I do think there’s a lot more technology being used previous to COVID and since COVID that’s supportive of learning,” Diggs said.

But Gahagan, who is working with families of special education students across the state, says some students may not fully recover from the time lost this past year. She said school districts can start by providing compensatory services for the learning lost when IEPs were not being met.

“Our most vulnerable and marginalized communities have been most hard hit by these school closures and these students already had struggles before the pandemic and have the least amount of resiliency to come back,” Gahagan said.

What Farrar and many special education parents say they want is a return to daily in-person instruction. She’s worried though that it may not happen even next school year.

“They may be doing all they can, but if they’re doing all that they can, then special-needs kids should be allowed to go to school everyday that they’re open,” Farrar said.

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