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The challenge of distance learning for parents of children with special needs

Roughly 14 percent of students enrolled in U.S. public schools receive special education services. As families across the nation grapple with home learning, what are the particular challenges the parents of these children face? Judy Woodruff reports and talks to Selene Almazan of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a nonprofit aiming to protect the rights of children with disabilities.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the U.S., roughly 14 percent of students enrolled in public school receive special education services.

    As families across the nation are grappling with how to teach their students from home, we wanted to look at the particular challenges parents of these students are facing.

    Here's what we heard.

  • Erin Croyle:

    My name is Erin Croyle. I live in Ithaca, New York.

    I have three children. I have a 9-year-old who has Down syndrome and ADHD and some other medical complexities that make it really, really difficult right now.

    My son, my oldest, requires a team of anywhere between three to 10 people at a time to help him learn. He's refusing to work. He's refusing to do any of the materials.

  • Trishia Bermudez:

    My name is Trishia Bermudez. And I live in Arverne, New York, which is on the Rockaway Peninsula.

    And my son is Matthew. He is 7. And he was born with a rare chromosome deletion. So, that puts him under a unique umbrella in the special education world, because he has — one of his diagnoses is learning disability and global developmental delay.

    For me, it's more about his regression and what that looks like, and how much more work he will need once we come out of this pandemic.

  • Angela Franco:

    My name is Angela Franco. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

    My son is Matthew Gulick. He's 11 years old. He has attended a special education program since he was 5 years old.

    I'm doing my best to keep it at home. It's obviously not the same, being at the school, with a schedule with somebody that is not necessarily their parent, that is an outsider, that can be more objective.

  • Corinne Roesler:

    My name is Corinne Roesler. I live in San Carlos, California.

    And I teach second, third, fourth and fifth graders with mild to moderate disabilities.

    The assignments are relatively similar to what we were doing in the classroom, but dialed back a little bit. We have been told that we don't have to be teaching anything new.

  • David Perry:

    I'm David Perry. I live in (AUDIO GAP) Minnesota, which is a suburb just north of the Twin Cities.

    And my son is 13. He's one of two kids. He's — my daughter's 10. He has Down syndrome and is autistic. He is, I guess, what the professionals call functionally nonverbal.

    We try to do the assignments that we can do. And we look for the ones that are well adapted and that seem to make sense. And we let a lot of things go, and we are letting a lot of things slide.

  • Erin Croyle:

    I try to do a schedule, and I try to get something to happen every day. And, every day, I feel like a failure. And I get emotional, because I care so deeply about his education. But it's not possible.

  • Trishia Bermudez:

    For physical therapy, literally, I'm having to hold his arms to make sure he extends them, or — and kind of coaching him on the other end of some things to kind of go on. But he's distracted, because we're at home.

  • Angela Franco:

    They're doing things online, but I put together, like, a mini-maker in my house, so he has the tools. He has the glue. He has a screwdriver.

  • Student:

    I used a piece — two pieces of wood.

  • Angela Franco:

    So, one day, he came out with a trash picker that he made with a shoebox and a piece of wood. So, he got it and he put it on top of the shoebox. And I think it looks amazing. I was like, wow, I'm impressed with my son.

  • Student:

    Thanks to (INAUDIBLE) I made this.

  • David Perry:

    He often requires a set of highly specific and intensive supports.

    I am not a trained special ed teacher. I'm not trained in providing him those supports. And if what I did all day was just sit with him and work on education, I think we could really accomplish a lot. But I'm not able to do that, because I'm working from home.

  • Corinne Roesler:

    I tell them every day that, if they ever want to talk to me, that they can message me on the classroom, and then we can have a one-on-one conversation.

    And I have done that with a student who was feeling very anxious and worried. And we talked about how she was feeling. And she was very sad that we weren't coming back to school.

  • Trishia Bermudez:

    This is much bigger than just saying, let's open schools.

    What does that game plan look like for our kids? And the plan that comes out of this needs to include our children aggressively.

  • Erin Croyle:

    We have been home for a month, and I think maybe I have sat him down and gotten him to engage maybe three times. And it's a little bit heartbreaking, but it also is — I just chalk it up to a win, because you got to take what you can get, and hoping that that will lead to more success.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Heartwarming and hard to hear at the same time.

    And we want to dig deeper into the challenges facing families with special need students right now with Selene Almazan. She is the legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. It's a nonprofit that aims to protect the legal and civil rights of children with disabilities.

    Selene Almazan, thank you very much.

    You have been doing this work for, what, more than 30 years. And you were telling us that one of the hardest things about what's going on right now is what these children are losing by not being in the classroom.

  • Selene Almazan:


    It's heartbreaking to listen to those families try to do what schools do every day with students with disabilities. So, it really is heartbreaking. And I don't know what I would do, being in their situation.

    Students with disabilities are losing out an enormous amount right now during this pandemic. And it is difficult to hear their struggles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You pay a lot of attention to what school districts, what schools are required to do. Tell us, just in general, what are schools required to do in working with these children, and then how is it different, now that these children are out of the class?

  • Selene Almazan:

    Well, schools are required to provide a free, appropriate public education to children, so they can make progress in their academic, educational environment.

    They're supposed to address their — the needs that the disabilities present, whether that's through academic, reading, writing, math, other students' needs, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy.

    And some students need more than what public schools can offer them and require private placement, at public expense, and those are special education schools.

    So, schools throughout the country, pre-pandemic, are providing many children with an appropriate education. The concern that we have had since the beginning of the school closures was, what our schools are going to do to address the needs of children with disabilities?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, realistically, how much of what these children were getting in the classroom — we heard one mother say her son requires anywhere from three to 10 people to work with him.

    How much of that can parents be realistically expected to do?

  • Selene Almazan:

    Well, I think it's hard, because parents are also trying to work from home, if they remain employed. So, that's a plus, that they're still employed.

    But it is difficult for families. Schools need to start where the IEP is, the individualized education program, which is the road map that schools have to follow in order to educate a child.

    Many schools have implemented the distance learning plans. Those distance learning plans need to look at the goals on the IEP and continue to work on some those goals in the distance learning plan.

    So, if a child has needs in reading, if a child has needs in math, they should continue to address those needs through the distance learning plan. If a child has speech language needs and needs speech and language therapy, then that needs to be addressed.

    I think one of the mothers said that her child was receiving physical therapy electronically, but it requires her to manipulate his arms in order to participate in the physical therapy. And it is a lot for families. It is a lot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We heard one of the mothers say she feels like a failure.

    What is your advice to parents who are watching this, listening to this, and feeling that this is more than they are capable of doing?

  • Selene Almazan:

    Well, from the outset, COPAA has encouraged people to work together with their school districts.

    We're sort of all in this together. But, also, we have advised families to look at where a child was the day before school closed. What was the child able to do then academically or with their speech or with physical therapy? What was the child able to do?

    And then keep track, either through video, either through data collection, either through looking at the assignments the child was able to complete pre-closure, what the child is able to complete during the closure instruction, and document that, so that, when schools resume, they can come to the school and say, my child has regressed, or my child has lost these skills, and this is where my child is now.

    We need to look at where he is now and start to program for him going forward, either by revising the IEP, by looking at new evaluations to see where a child is presently when they come back to school.

    It's hard when you're a parent of a child with a disability. I know that from my own experience. And what I do tell families is, you have just got to look at where you are on that day, and tomorrow is another day.

    What families — what parents of children with disabilities know, what we know, as parents of children with — that have needs, is that every day is a new day. And we also know that we have to work really hard at documenting for schools, so that schools will know exactly what a child is going to need.

    Parents are a child's biggest advocate. You know your child the best. And the only thing that you can do between now and when school starts is continue to document, document, document what a child is doing now, what they were able to do before, so that once school reconvenes, you can give that information to the school.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Good advice, I am sure, for all these parents. We all need to give them as much support as we possibly can.

    Selene Almazan, joining us from Maryland, thank you very much.

  • Selene Almazan:

    Thank you.

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