Remote learning is difficult for students with disabilities

The transition to distance learning has been difficult for second-grader Brooklyn Gross and other students with disabilities. Submitted photo

Each school day, Christy Caez’s son, who has ADHD and dyslexia, sits down with his district-provided Google Chromebook to do his classwork.

The Lake Nokomis Community School second-grader does his best to complete assignments, but he’s not yet able to read. That means Caez, a stay-at-home mother of two who lives in the Bryant neighborhood, has to guide him through his assignments, reading instructions and typing up his work.

“If I didn’t sit down with him, he wouldn’t get anything done,” Caez said.

Many Minneapolis students with disabilities have, like Caez’s son, faced a steep learning curve in the transition to remote education.

While some may be more engaged, there have been challenges both to ensure the students understand the technology and keep them motivated.

“Whatever is hard for typical kids, it’s that much harder for people with disabilities,” said Armatage parent Liz Hannan, whose 19-year-old son, Michael Grace, has Down syndrome.

About 17% of students in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) have a disability that qualifies them under federal law for special education services.

Some special education administrator groups had asked for flexibility on compliance with specific parts of the law during the pandemic. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said April 28 that she does not recommend that Congress ease any core requirements for school districts.

In Minneapolis, the district has created individualized distance learning plans for each student who qualifies for special education services, said Rochelle Cox, associate superintendent of special education.

While special education staff have continued working with students, there have been several challenges, according to Cox and special education director Sara Stack. One has been getting kids with disabilities devices they need, such as hearing aids, and another has been maintaining contact with homeless and highly mobile families.

Remote education has also required more help from families, Cox said.

“We’re really having to rely on them to help us,” she said.

Struggling to stay motivated

For Lynnhurst mother Katie Gross, whose second-grade daughter Brooklyn has autism, ADHD and mild anxiety, providing that help over the past six weeks hasn’t been easy.

Gross said that Brooklyn doesn’t work as well at home as she does at Spero Academy, the Northeast Minneapolis charter school she attends. Brooklyn joins an online call with her classmates each morning but has struggled to stay motivated throughout the mornings.

Doing work via online modules has proven difficult, Gross said, so Brooklyn has mainly worked out of paper packets the school drops off.

For Maren Christenson, getting her fourth-grade son, who has autism and attends Annunciation Catholic School in Windom, to do school work hasn’t necessarily been the challenge.

He doesn’t need a lot of support academically, she said, but he had access at school to a sensory gym in which he could take breaks. To replicate that at home, Christenson said, her son goes outside and does “heavy work,” such as climbing trees.

Each day, Christenson said, she and her son look at the assignments that have been assigned and write them down on Post-it notes he can rip up once he’s completed them. They try to complete one or two of the assignments before a 10 a.m. class Zoom call before more independent work. The teacher checks in with the students again at 1 p.m., and it’s often late afternoon — past 4 p.m. and sometimes closer to 6 p.m. — before he’s done for the day.

“It’s been a challenge trying to get his work done while also doing my work,” said Christenson, who runs support groups for parents with autism and is on the board of the Minnesota Autism Council.

Christenson said kids with disabilities often have a whole team of support staff, including speech pathologists and nurses, with whom they work while in school. Parents are having to fill those roles themselves during the pandemic, which, she said, isn’t easy.

Caez lost her freelance consulting job because of the pandemic, which has freed up her daytime schedule, but she’s still challenged by the responsibilities she’s taken on.

“No one really prepares you to be your kid’s teacher,” Caez said.

Transition Plus student Michael Grace meets virtually with his advisory group. Grace has participated in virtual school and enrichment activities during the pandemic. Submitted photo

‘Connecting with the content’

Southwest High School 10th-grader Brynn Sexton, who has an intellectual disability, said she has missed school during the closure but that she’s maintained all A’s.

She said her favorite virtual class has been the 3 Strings adapted guitar class, which brings together kids with disabilities and their mainstream peers to play popular music.

Brynn’s parents, Sally and Tony Sexton, said her teachers have customized assignments to better meet her needs, though they said it requires a lot of support. They said she has become more comfortable with video meetings and her new routine since remote school started and that her teachers have done a great job of connecting with her.

Tony said he feels like Brynn is “connecting with the content” even more at home, though she likes being at school. She has gotten overwhelmed and lost track of assignments when there have been a lot of emails, but her parents have been working with her case manager to declutter her virtual space.

Supporting Brynn during remote education has required a lot of work, both Tony and Sally said. They said she looks forward to virtual social events, such as a dance company that has moved its classes online.

It’s a similar story for Michael Grace, who attended Southwest High School through last school year and now attends MPS’ Transition Plus program four days a week.

Since school was cancelled, Grace has been meeting virtually each day with his advisory group. He also has received virtual speech therapy, worked virtually with his case manager on a project and participated in weekly virtual bingo games and dance parties.

In addition to school activities, he has been training online for a summer internship program and has participated in virtual social and enrichment activities, such as dance and cooking classes and unified Special Olympics.

Hannan said Grace’s teachers have gone out of their way to make remote education successful, noting that the Transition Plus principal hand-delivered a package of writing materials to their home. She said Grace has needed more help than most students in figuring out how to use the technology but that he’s been figuring it out.

While she and the other parents all said they appreciate the efforts of school staff during the closure, there appears to be one thing on which everyone agrees.

“We’re looking forward to being together again,” Cox said.