Parents of special needs students brace for distance learning challenges

 Distance learning was a struggle for many Minnesota special education students during the last several months of the 2019-2020 school […]

 Distance learning was a struggle for many Minnesota special education students during the last several months of the 2019-2020 school year. The start of classes for 2020-2021 is bringing out many hopes and fears. 

Parents from across Minnesota expressed frustration with distance learning during a July 22 virtual forum. Advocacy group representatives, legislators and officials from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) heard a long list of concerns. MDE officials are working to answer the questions raised. 

“There’s so many different issues that need to be addressed,” said Maren Christenson Hofer of the Arc Minnesota. 

A statewide survey of more than 20,000 Minnesota educators split on fall plans, with almost half stating a preference for distance learning and almost the same number favoring a physical return with appropriate safety measures in classrooms. That is according to Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union. 

woman speaking at podium
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht spoke at a recent press conference, citing teachers’ concerns about a safe return to classrooms this fall.

Forty-six percent of survey respondents want a physical return to classrooms, but less than 1 in 5 want to do that full-time. 

In contrast, an MDE survey found that 64 percent of parents were comfortable with sending their children back to school this fall. More than 94 percent said the return should be full time 

But that may not be the case for many parents of children with disabilities. Distance learning has been a challenge for many Minnesota families. More than 200 people were on the July 22 call at one point. 

“We gave it a try,” said parent Gena Elberhoy. But her daughter needs physical proximity to teachers and staff to learn. 

Special education students often have difficulty with the end of a school year and the change to summer routines. Some parents said that kind of struggle came months early this year, as schools shut down in March. 

Aggression, mental health issues, withdrawal, isolation and loss of speech and interpersonal skills were among the problems cited. Some parents said they believe students with disabilities were forgotten in recent months. 

Many special education students, especially those who need social cues to interact and learn, didn’t do well with virtual learning. Students missed their routines, and their friends and teachers. Some were challenged by the technology of virtual learning. Lack of consistency within individual school districts frustrated students and their families, with teachers using Zoom or Skype, or simply emailing out assignments. 

Students with hearing disabilities had their own problems with distance learning and with trying to understand people wearing masks. Wearing masks or face shields is another potential obstacle parents raised. 

Families worry that their students have regressed and will continue to do so if they are not in traditional classrooms this fall. It could take months to evaluate every student after school starts, meaning more learning time and help could be lost. 

Students who were nearing the end of their special education days didn’t get the transitional skills needed to take the next steps with their lives. Parents have asked if they could repeat that last crucial term and the training that comes with it. Such training couldn’t be replicated in a home setting. 

Yet contracting COVID-19 is a huge concern for families, especially those whose children and other household members have compromised immune systems. Some school districts lack adequate personal protective equipment for faculty and staff. 

Teachers car with signs about concerns
A teachers’ vehicle caravan displayed signs stating concerns about the start of the school year, at a recent Education Minnesota rally.

Melissa Fredin left a school district job she’d held for two decades so that she could stay home and help her children, all of whom have special needs. The children attend four different schools. 

With one child, “we were just starting to transition to full-time high school and then the world just stopped,” Fredin said. 

It was a tough several months for Fredin’s entire family. “At the end of the day they were just not learning,” she said. 

Rob McArdle’s 21-year-old son has multiple disabilities and needs 24/7 care. “Special education students are entitled to a free and appropriate education, in the least restrictive environment,” he said. “But students in their final year of school had their lives disrupted in a very tragic way.” 

Typically the final semester for students who age out of special education centers on critically needed transitional learning and training. Yet McArdles’ son and many other young people lost that opportunity. 

For parents who lack basic resources, online learning added to their struggles. Susan Montgomery’s family not only lacks transportation, they had to seek housing during the pandemic. “Now I am very scared that my son with get COVID,” she said. 

Parents worry that if something happens to them, entire families are at risk. “I want to keep my family safe; I want to keep my other children safe … if something happens to me, I am the foundation in this house,” said parent Fatima Molas. She has an eight-year-old child who needs help with tasks including washing hands. 

Legislators agree that the problems are complex and need to be addressed through policy and possible law changes. “We’re all apprehensive about sending students back to school, “ said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis). But we’re also apprehensive about additional distance learning.” 

Rep. Brian Daniels (R-Faribault) is the parent of a child with hearing disabilities. “His life was turned around” by the changes during the school year, Daniels said. 

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