Virtual learning a ‘nightmare’ for special education students amid pandemic, parents say

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Virtual learning has been a nightmare for Lily Cheng-Schulting, whose teenage son William has severe autism.

William, 16, struggled with the disruption of his daily school schedule after a Nov. 18 month-long state mandate paused in-person learning at high schools and colleges, including special education programs, to slow the spread of COVID-19.

His friendly demeanor has given way to aggressive meltdowns over the course of remote instruction, and learning on a computer has been impossible, his mom said.

“Every day is just a huge struggle at home,” said Cheng-Schulting, who stays at home to help her son with remote learning. “In terms of his behavior and how he’s adjusted to the structure at home, its been quite a nightmare.”

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted education for every student in Michigan this year as K-12 schools have transitioned in and out of remote learning since March in response to the pandemic.

While educators have recognized that all students struggle with remote learning, there has been one group of students for whom they say online learning has proven to be virtually impossible – students with special needs.

At school, special needs students rely on personal, hands-on attention from trained specialists. The tools that other children are using for remote learning such as Zoom often aren’t accessible.

“Virtual learning is non-existent for students like my son,” Cheng-Schulting said. “It’s not like any other highly developed neuro-typical students, where you can put them in a desk and they can work. I can’t even get (William) into a desk.”

Students with cognitive and physical impairments often cannot sit in front of a computer and attend classes online, where they miss out on many important services of in-person instruction like physical and speech therapy.

School districts are federally mandated to provide the nation’s seven million students with disabilities an education designed to meet their individual needs under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

While students with special needs are entitled to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), Cheng-Schulting said she barely has time to check the daily assignments emailed to her by William’s teacher every day, let alone teach her son.

William, who is nonverbal, struggles with weekly meltdowns caused by the switch to remote learning, his mom said.

Cheng-Schulting, founder and president of Disability A-TEAM of West Michigan, said her son lost the daily structure of riding the bus to the Lincoln Developmental Center in Grand Rapids, where he attends school, having peers in his classes and eating lunch at school.

Special education leaders in West Michigan have worked tirelessly to adapt to the pandemic and work with families to continue their students’ education, said Paul Dymowski, director of the Kent Intermediate School District center-based special education programs.

The center or centralized services are for those students across Kent ISDs 20 school districts that have cognitive and physical impairments and autism spectrum disorders that exceed the capacity of their districts.

“It’s almost impossible for us to truly have students make meaningful progress without that in-person, hands-on learning that we do best, but we are getting creative and looking at alternatives to that,” Dymowski said.

Those alternatives have included offering families virtual meetings with teachers and allowing some students to come into the school buildings for one-on-one therapy sessions.

But when it comes to online classes, learning “just isn’t the same over a computer,” Dymowski said.

“A lot of our kids, because of the nature and severity of their disability, are not able to engage virtually,” he said. “Some of our students can’t log on to the computer independently, because of their cognitive and their motor skills, they need someone there sits sitting there with them.”

That’s why the majority of Kent County families picked in-person learning over the online-only option when school resumed in August, Dymowski said.

Of the more than 1,000 students enrolled in Kent ISD’s Special Education Center Programs, more than 70{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of families opted for in-person learning this fall, Dymowski said. Only one COVID-19 case was found within the program this fall, in a staff member.

While all K-12 teachers have had to quickly adapt to remote learning during the pandemic, special education teachers were already well equipped for that challenge, school leaders say.

Special needs educators have been able to navigate education amid the pandemic because they are used to adapting to very unique circumstances, said Karlie Parker, associate superintendent of special education for the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District.

“It is not unusual for us to have to create different lessons for every student within our classroom, have different supplies available, have to communicate in different modes using different technologies,” Parker said.

“So, although our preference is heavily to be face-to-face with our students, I do think that they had some inherent skills to adapt to the individualized nature of remote instruction during this time.”

Muskegon resident Kim Gables, whose twins receive special education services through North Muskegon Public Schools, said her sons’ teachers have gone above and beyond this year to support their students.

The district has been devoted to her sons throughout the pandemic, keeping up with IEP meetings and busing the boys to school from out of the district when they were doing hybrid learning up until November.

“They have really bent over backwards for my voice,” she said. “Anything I’ve asked for; they’ve really done it and they really went to bat for my boys.”

But despite the district’s ongoing support, virtual learning has still been tough for the two boys, Max and Miles, who have cerebral palsy with some physical impairments that make it difficult to do remote learning by themselves, Gables said.

“It’s very chaotic, to say the least,” she said. “My husband works full time, so it’s me at home with them both, checking in with separate teachers, and having to have them in separate rooms so they’re not echoing both teachers and themselves.”

“Not having that face-to-face interaction with a teacher is really extremely hard and getting them to focus, sitting at a computer and sitting still and looking at a screen is pretty much impossible.”

Remote learning has been an eye-opener for Grandville mom Kiri Salazar, who opted to keep her son Alexei in virtual learning since March to avoid COVID-19. The 16-year-old has severe autism and is nonverbal, she said.

Although Alexei used to love school – he enjoyed interacting with other students and swimming in the school’s pool – he has adjusted well to life at home, his mom said.

And as the two have spent more time together, Salazar said she’s become more attuned to her sons abilities, adjusting his school assignments to better the learning level of Alexei, who has severe autism and is nonverbal.

“I’ve been more present, I’ve been able to observe, and I’m not trying to force my kid to do something he may not be able to do anymore,” she said.

“I’m adjusting his work to be more visual, I’m trying to learn a way to communicate with him that is less likely to cause problems, because that’s helpful to him and it’s helpful to me and this is why I don’t think he’s having quite as many explosions.”

To help you navigate this complicated fall, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.

More on MLive:

COVID-19 vaccine is not a golden ticket to normalcy in Michigan schools – yet

Michigan’s next school semester might look more like 2020 than a new year

Five things to know about the high school fall sports restart in Michigan

Next Post

Mon Jan 4 , 2021