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School Closures Affect Students with Disabilities

 April 29, 2020

By  Debbi Katz

Closing schools and moving to online education is crucial in terms of social distancing and preventing the spread of Covid-19. Another purpose, however, has been to maintain the 180-day minimum without affecting budgets or breaking teachers’ contracts. Forty-two million students are being schooled from home and their teachers must create an entire system of online K-12 education from scratch in a handful of days.

What challenges are created by online education?

Questions continue to emerge faster than they can be answered. Does the technology or equipment exist to accomplish this? Are the teachers prepared to do this? What about the families? Do they have enough laptops for themselves and their children? That leaves one question that has yet to be covered in any detail: How will this affect students with disabilities?

The future of our children’s education has moved online, rather suddenly. A child with learning or attentional issues may not be able to work independently in front of a computer. The aides that guide them in school will not be present to guide them. That task will fall upon parents, who have no training in this area.

Parents of children with nonverbal autism, extreme behavior problems, serious cognitive deficits, and physical handicaps face an even tougher challenge. Their schools provided therapy, in addition to an academic education. More intense needs mean even higher stress levels.

What are related services?

Let’s take a closer look at this therapy, also known as “related services.” These include transportation, as well as developmental, corrective and other supportive services required for a child with a disability to benefit from special education. Speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, and recreation also fall into this category. The list goes on.

Disabilities must be identified and assessed early in a child’s life. There are counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. School services, school nurse services, social work services in schools; all are related services that may not exist in the new status quo.

What does online education mean for parents and staff?

Staff such as occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists will not be following their students’ home, neither will the behaviorists who monitor and correct the actions of autistic students, or the aides that diaper children in wheelchairs or hold the children with epilepsy as they have seizures. None of this can happen online.

Routine, along with other essential skills, will lapse. The responsibility that will now fall on the shoulders of parents will be unbearable. Students already prone to severe meltdowns might endanger younger siblings. The mental health of entire households will suffer.

Isolation will set in as they are separated from their teachers, therapist and classmates. Social skills and conversation skills will slip. With this crisis finally in our rear-view, the make-up education alone will seem insurmountable.

What’s the good news?

The best, or worst, news is that it is highly unlikely that these students will not be educated at all for weeks. It may be best to spare them the confusion and disruption. It is still the worst possible outcome because these kids will miss out on learning.

The good news is that all these services are legally guaranteed to those students in their IEPs, or individualized education plans. Hours upon hours of education will be owed. Schools will have to comply and provide “compensatory education.” The financial burden rests upon the government and though it doesn’t sound like good news, schools will have to stay open during summer vacation in order to fill the special education gap.

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