Special education concerns in Virginia during coronavirus, reopening of schools

Families are worried their children are falling behind after months out of the classroom

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. – Families are worried their children are falling behind after months out of the classroom. Special needs children or those with IEPs are in danger of losing even more. We continue our in depth look at what fall looks like for those children with reopening schools.

“It’s hard. There’s a lot of physical movement, there’s a lot of lifting,” said Stacey Nichols, a mother of four children who spends most of her days in the basement taking care of 10-year old Leila who has GRIN disorder and can’t walk or talk.

Leila in the special education program at Oak Grove Elementary but when schools shut down, mom had to take over.

Stacey Nichols says she's thankful for what Roanoke County teachers provided but it's just not the same as being in school (Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“There is definitely a risk that I’m not able to teach her things that she needs to know to advance academically,” said Nichols. “You never really know from one day to the next how engaged will she be, will she be fatigued, will she be having a rough day where you really need to figure out what the need is before you can move forward with any type of cognitive or academic task.”

The Huffman family is going through the same struggles with Jaedyn, a 15-year-old with a brain injury.

“Many of the things they do in the classroom I’m not able to do here on my own because it does require two people to be able to pull those off. But we do try,” said Patty Huffman, a mother of three children who’s daughter is in a Roanoke County school special education program.

Teachers know different techniques, that these parents don’t.

“Am I using the right resources? Am I using them the right way? How is it that I should be doing this?” said Nichols. “At school they of course are very much experts in all of the literacy, all of the math education.”

These mothers worry the fall will look the same.

“It’s important for her to be in school with her peers and learn to be independent and grow and keep moving forward,” said Huffman.

Leila got paper packets and online resources when schools shut down in March. Jaedyn’s teacher did online classes where they could see go through their morning routine as if they were in the classroom.

Jaedyn Huffman is a 15-year-old with a brain injury who looked forward to hearing her classmates on virtual lessons. (Copyright 2020 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“That was really, really beneficial for Jaedyn. It made her happy to be able to see the faces of her friends and hear her friends, hear her teacher,” said Huffman.

“I think the Roanoke County public schools did a fantastic job given an impossible situation,” said Nichols but says it’s not the same as one on one. “She really needs things in her face. She needs sound, she needs touch, she needs action and that’s not really something that can be conveyed through telehealth or remote learning.”

Mom-guilt is weighing heavily on these parents.

“There’s always that fear of missing out somehow,” said Nichols. “If I was someone else doing it would she be advancing further. There’s always a lot of self-doubt and a lot of parental guilt in terms of how I’m balancing time and really working with all of the different children.”

Some local school districts tell 10 News it’s too early to say what special education and IEPs look like for the fall because they are still working on a return to school plans.

Roanoke City Public School’s Executive Director of Special Education Hayley Poland says until the division-wide plan is finalized, they cannot develop a special education plan. The school system will contact each family with an IEP to develop an individualized plan for the fall. Poland encourages families to be involved in the process because they need to make decisions based on an individual basis and every child is different. She says about 2,600 Roanoke City students have an IEP.

Salem City Public Schools says instruction has not stopped over the summer. Students with mild to moderate disabilities were given the option to have zoom lessons because they know those students were more impacted with school shutdowns. Salem’s Director of Student Services Dr. Randy Jennings says some families opted for the work and others did not.

Dr. Jennings says for the fall they will focus on specific skills for students with IEPs that they know are barriers to graduation:

  • For elementary students, that’s interventions like intensive phonics and reading instruction
  • Middle school focuses on writing and math
  • For high school students, they focus on graduation credits, where algebra and geometry tend to be barriers

Right now, on Wednesdays students are not scheduled to be in the Salem school buildings, so staff can use that time to bring in students for additional instruction--- English language, remedial instruction and small group instruction for students with disabilities.

Dr. Jennings says in the fall, they will have IEP meetings to figure out what the school plan looks like for each student.

The Virginia Department of Education has an entire section online for special education and student services related to COVID. You can find that here. This is an excerpt VDOE highlighted for 10 News:

"Once school resumes, the school must return to providing special education and related services to students with disabilities in accordance with the student’s IEP, or for students entitled to FAPE under Section 504, consistent with any plan developed to meet the requirements of Section 504. Additionally, after an extended closure, divisions are responsible for reviewing how the closure impacted the delivery of special education and related services to students eligible for special education services.

In the event that a school division reopens but a student with a disability is advised to remain at home by a public health authority or school official for an extended period of time because of COVID-19, the U. S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) guidance states that provisions should be made to maintain education services. During such absences, if the school is open and serving other students, the school must ensure that the student continues to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE), consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student. If feasible, the student’s IEP Team, or the personnel responsible for ensuring FAPE to a student for the purposes of Section 504, can be utilized to assist with the effort to determine if some, or all, of the identified services can be provided through alternate or additional methods.”

SEAC, or the Roanoke County Public School Special Education Advisory Committee, works with RCPS administration, schools, parents and families for students receiving special education services. There is a website you can find here. There is also a Parent Resource Center in the Roanoke County school administrative building on Cove Road.

This is part of an ongoing in-depth 10 News series looking into reopening schools in Virginia. Jenna Zibton is working for you, investigating many different angles of what the changes and challenges mean for families, staff, and the community. Contact Jenna if you have questions by email or on Facebook.

About the Author

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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