Metro special needs students facing special challenges with online learning at home

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DENVER | With schools closed through the last few weeks of this school year, Aurora teachers and families have turned to computers and video calls to keep kids learning during the persistent COVID-19 pandemic. 

But that’s proved to be a challenge for special education students — kids with specific learning and physical disabilities in learning plans that don’t translate cleanly into online learning. 

Normally, nearly 12,000 special needs students attend public schools in both Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District, which together cover Aurora and parts of Denver, Centennial and other municipalities. Students with deafness, blindness, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and learning disabilities are among those students needing varying degrees of special instruction in schools now trying to make education work at home, while school districts remain tied to legal requirements that these students receive their special education programming. 

“He’s doing the best he can”

Since Aurora students first tuned into school remotely the week of March 30, teachers and school district officials have been hard-pressed to accommodate students like Dylan Combs, a fifth grader in Jeffco Public Schools.

For Dylan, the switch to remote learning has posed a challenge. Dylan is autistic, struggling with reading comprehension and executive functioning. It’s a learning disability affecting a student’s ability to pay attention, organize and finish tasks. 

In a normal school day, Dylan traveled in a concrete schedule between general education classes and specialized learning times to make sure he didn’t fall through the cracks. Now, his father, Danny Combs, told the Sentinel, his schedule has been reduced to Zoom meetings several times a week with a special educator or a psychiatrist. 

Remote learning requires a lot of reading comprehension — something Dylan struggles with, Danny said. Plus, there’s been a steep learning curve for using Google Hangouts and Classroom, two apps also used in Aurora schools during remote learning. 

“It takes a lot of help to walk him through” and manage windows on his computer interface, Danny said. 

It’s a metro-wide, and nationwide, challenge.
Dylan is one of about 9,000 special needs students in the 84,000-student JeffCo Schools district. More than 10,000 special needs students are enrolled in 92,000-student Denver Public Schools.

Students with more serious special needs in classrooms are typically surrounded by a support system of teachers and staff who help them progress through a public school system in spite of a disability. Now, without staff checking in on students at their desks, pulling them out of class for an individualized learning session or even providing physical therapy in schools, school districts are trying to maintain that communication and find creative learning solutions. 

But every special needs student student has, by definition, specific needs and a special learning plan to meet learning goals. 

Computers and special needs 

Some Cherry Creek students, for example, work on social interactions in a group setting. Tony Poole, the district assistant superintendent of special populations, said those plans obviously can’t proceed normally. 

Another student has problems triggered by computers. 

“That’s what we’re working with the parent to figure out,” Poole said of the student. 

Cherry Creek students with severe special needs who sort items to continue cognitive development are now sorting silverware and matching socks at home. Remote learning with these students might be more one-on-one than the general student population, said Susan Snowdon, the district elementary special education director.

Still, there have been successes. Deaf students can still communicate via sign language in a video chat, for example. 

In APS, Rachael Browning, director of student services, said the district is delivering hearing aid devices to help students with hearing issues to hear computer sounds needed for their remote learning work.

Browning reiterated the feeling among Cherry Creek officials that communication with special needs families is key during this time. If a student is falling behind, Browning said the student’s special needs education team will convene and hammer out a solution with the family —all virtually.

Is it working? 

So far, teachers are doing the best they can, and students are still getting their special education programming as required by law, according to school district officials and Tommie Shimrock, a former special education teacher working with the Aurora Education Association on special needs instruction. 

Browning said that APS families should reach out to her if they are concerned that their special needs student is falling behind.

Cindy Cipoletti, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, has heard from special needs families throughout the country during this transition to remote learning. 

She told the Sentinel that it’s been crucial for special needs educators to reach out to families during this time, stay on course, and stay connected.  

“When those people have reached out to parents to kind of say, ‘Hey don’t worry, here’s what we’re going to do,’ those parents are feeling very satisfied that they are getting what they need,” Cipoletti said.

Still, she said the barriers for students with learning disabilities are so high during this remote learning period that U.S. schools should be closed entirely. In many cases, too much of the burden is falling on parents now charged with making sure their student doesn’t fall behind until schools reopen, when the student’s supports can physically keep an eye on them. 

For Danny Combs, school days have become hectic as he tries to keep Dylan and four other students in his household on track including another child with autism. 

“I’m proud of him. He’s doing the best he can, to his credit,” Danny said of Dylan.