‘A very heavy lift’: Students with disabilities, families navigate new reality

Virtual classes
Virtual classes, therapy and reading and math practice greet 10-year-old Katy Gerster each school day. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Inside of her Linden Hills home, Katy Gerster, a 10-year-old with moderate intellectual disabilities, logs in to her Google Chromebook each weekday for real-time virtual classes at Lyndale Community School.

Katy’s mom, Stephanie Gerster, has taken pains to make it easier for Katy to focus, covering pictures on the walls and building bins into which she can place her work. But it’s still been difficult. Internet outages have derailed entire days, Gerster said, and supervision is important for keeping Katy on track, even with her teachers guiding her virtually over Google Meet.

“The second there’s a glitch, all bets are off,” Gerster said. “I know this stuff happens at school, but I’m just me. … I just get to be the bad guy all of the time, and that doesn’t help anybody.”

Across Southwest Minneapolis, families of students with disabilities are navigating the challenges of real-time virtual classes this fall, as Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) considers how and when to bring students back to the classroom.

Families say they’re grateful for the efforts of their teachers and are generally happier with the new structure of distance learning after a spring semester in which students were asked to complete assignments on their own time. But they also say it’s tiring to have to provide constant supervision and that they worry about the lost opportunities for socialization.

“It’s the medium that is just leaving some kids behind,” said Lauren Anderson, a parent of a kindergartner who has Down syndrome. “We’re worried that while we could get him caught up academically, there’s no replacing the loss of a really critical year of his schooling.”

Katy and Stephanie Gerster
Katy and Stephanie Gerster spend most of the time at their Linden Hills home. Gerster said she tries not to hover while Katy is working but that she often needs help with transitions. Photos by Isaiah Rustad

Five phases

MPS has created a model, called “5 Phases to Safe Learning,” that will dictate the return to in-person classes. The district is currently in phase 2, in which core instruction and before- and after-school programming remains virtual and there are minimal in-person services.

District leaders haven’t identified a COVID-19 case rate in the city of Minneapolis that would prompt them to move to phase 3, which would include more in-person academic services for the highest-need students.

Rochelle Cox, who oversees the district’s special education department, told parents at a pre-schoolyear virtual meeting that getting students with disabilities in the classroom is a priority.

“We know that for families who have students receiving special education services … it’s been a very heavy lift,” she said.

She and Kris Geiger, a special education administrator, said the district has done a better job helping students and families use the technology this fall.

Parent Sarah Vinueza is a co-chair of the district’s special education advisory council, a group of parents and district staffers that meets monthly to talk about issues around special education. She said her son, an 11th grader at Edison High School, struggled with the lack of a daily schedule last spring to the point where he nearly failed his classes.

The new format makes him anxious, she said, but the set schedule has helped him stay focused this year and turn in most of his assignments.

Bryn Mawr neighborhood parent Scot Ferguson has a 4-year-old son, Barrett, who has an intellectual disability and is enrolled in the early childhood special education program at Elizabeth Hall School in North Minneapolis.

Since Ferguson and his wife both work full time, Barrett and his 2-year-old sister are able to socialize with other kids at day care. But without the in-person classes, Barrett misses out on the chance to work on sensory issues and basic skills like taking turns.

Christine Denoman, who works with students with developmental cognitive disabilities, also said her students are missing chances to work on behavior-based goals, like classroom transitions.

But she said she’s been pleased with how distance learning has been going, because without the need to help students physically, staff members have had more time to focus on planning and teaching.

Across Minnesota, schools have struggled with integrating students with disabilities into general education classes, said Jody Manning of the nonprofit PACER Center, which supports students with disabilities and their families.

She recommended that parents of students with disabilities talk to their school case managers if they’re having difficulties.

Katy’s desk
A white trifold board covers pictures at Katy’s desk, part of her mother’s goal of blocking out distractions.

‘Don’t want her lost’

Anderson, the kindergartner parent, is ambivalent about a potential return to in-person classes. She said she’d much rather have her son in school but that he might not be able to go back because of his medical needs.

“We feel like we’re caught right in the middle,” she said, adding that she and her husband have dramatically changed their work schedules to help their son with distance learning.

“There’s no part of his distance learning where we can step back,” she said.

Gerster, the Linden Hills parent, has no hesitation about returning in person.

“I would literally drive around to all of [Katy’s] friends’ houses and pick them up if that means they can be in school,” she said. Gerster said she tries not to hover while Katy is working but that Katy needs help at points accessing online files or links. As a single parent who has metastatic breast cancer, she finds herself exhausted by mid-afternoon most days, which means that Katy spends the better part of her evenings in front of a screen. Gerster questions how the district will make an in-person return work, noting that if it doesn’t happen by January, it might be easier to put it off until fall 2021.

“I feel like there’s a very small window of time where it’s even feasible to do it,” she said. “I’m not going to think about that. I’m just going to think about this week.”

Because of her cancer, Gerster said she feels an added sense of urgency for Katy to become independent as soon as possible.

“I don’t want her to end up lost if I’m gone,” she said.