Remote learning poses hurdles for students with disabilities

Full Screen
1 / 2

This January 2020 photo shows Anna Mandh, left, and her mother, Darlene Gildersleeve, in Concord, N.H. Gildersleeve is among many parents concerned about access to special education services as schools have shifted to remote learning due to the new coronavirus. (Darlene Gildersleeve via AP)

BOSTON – At school, Rose Hayes, 8, works with a team of teachers and therapists trained to help with her genetic condition. They set goals for her reading, give her physical therapy to improve her balance and make sure she stays on track. But for the last two weeks, her only connection to school has been through a computer screen.

Rose, home amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered schools across the country, now watches lessons her teacher posts to YouTube. Her therapists check in via video chat. In between, she works through daily assignments.

Her parents say it’s the best they can expect, but they still struggle. Rose has difficulty working on her own, so they need to stay nearby. And without the therapy equipment Rose uses at school, they have to improvise.

“We’re trying to be teachers. We’re trying to be therapists. We’re a little bit of everything right now, and it’s very stressful,” said Rob Hayes, of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He and his wife work for pharmaceutical companies and have continued working during the pandemic, trading turns staying home with Rose and their 2-year-old daughter.

Across the U.S., schools and families face new challenges in maintaining instruction for students with disabilities. Teachers are exploring new ways to deliver customized lessons from afar. And while parents of all children have taken on schooling duties, those whose children have disabilities are adding therapy, hands-on lessons and behavioral management to the list.

Last year, nearly 7 million U.S. students ages 3 to 18 received special education services, according to federal data. Schools are required to craft individual education plans for each one: For some, it's mostly a matter of providing extra time on assignments; others need an array of complex services, and some have lost access to expensive technology they use at school to help them communicate.

As they adapt to shutdowns, some schools are turning to video conferencing to provide lessons and therapy sessions, while others are bringing small groups of students back for services or training parents to help.

Some, though, have hesitated to move special education online. As virtual instruction began unrolling, the U.S. Education Department issued a reminder that students with disabilities must be granted the same opportunities as other students. It led some districts, including Philadelphia's public schools, to forgo online instruction entirely, citing concerns about their ability to serve all children.