Educational barriers heightened for special needs students during COVID-19 pandemic

WMBF INVESTIGATES: Education gaps for those with special needs during pandemic

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the education system and local families in a variety of ways.

Students who may be seeing some of the most adverse effects are those who need special education.

Horry County mother Katie Sacra and her husband know this well. They have a 20-year-old son who has a variety of challenging physical and intellectual disabilities, including deafblindness.

This upcoming fall is considered his transition year out of public education, something Sacra said they’ve been working tirelessly to prepare for.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit and forced schools to shut down in March, it felt as if everything came to a complete stop.

“It’s extremely discouraging to see a progress report sent home during the quarantine that specifically states that they’re having to rely mostly on data before the time frame that school in a sense stopped -- and we weren’t attending the actual public school,” Sacra said. “I feel like we actually missed half of this past year; because he didn’t receive services, there was no data even being collected. There was no services really being provided.”

Across the U.S., students with disabilities who need special education because of it are guaranteed protections through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, otherwise known as IDEA.

It includes the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the child, which is a road map of instruction created by a key school team with the parents for how that child can progress and succeed in their education.

But traditionally, it’s fashioned when society has more normalcy, and the global pandemic has had the capacity to throw these plans off or to even shatter them.

That’s certainly been the experience for her son, Sacra said.

“We’ve created this entire communication system for him - this entire communication approach. But all of it is tactile for him,” Sacra explained. “And so if he’s not touching your hands, you’re sharing, touching an object card. So there’s going to be a close distance, without him in a mask, and you have to touch. Everything that is not recommended right now.”

These effects, though specific, can be drawn out to a greater scale of difficulty.

According to the district’s spokesperson, in Horry County alone, the school district serves over 45,000 students. Within that number, 6,489 students in the district have a disability.

That factors out to meaning roughly 14% of the students in South Carolina’s third-largest school district may have been seeing their education with accommodations negatively impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mothers that WMBF Investigates spoke with agree. As part of a virtual setting, several Horry County parents who have children with disabilities were interviewed and invited to discuss their concerns, while having a wide variety of family settings, children ages and special needs.

But what was common were the frustrations with trying to accommodate their student’s IEP in a virtual context when the school year came to a screeching halt in March. They’ve also noticed varying levels of regression in their children’s progress, and have identified apprehension for what’s to come in the fall.

“I’m worried about all these kids,” Devon Lloyd said, who has a child with autism and ADHD. “Is this a whole generation of kids that are going to be out of their element and just behind? Socially, emotionally, intellectually? So, it’s definitely worrisome.”

Sacra said when everything changed with the pandemic, she had no way to explain it to him.

“I feel like the educators have spent a lot of time calling and saying, “Can I do anything?” and documenting it,” she said. “And if you add up all the minutes that they have probably spent combined because we have a very large team of people, and if you took all of the time that they’ve spent, and spent it actually working towards what can we do? Let’s get out of the box. We’ve always had to get out of the box with him - we’ve always had to be creative, and we found ways. But there’s so much time being spent on ways that I don’t feel are productive at all.”

Lindsay Turbeville, a mother whose child has autism and ADHD, agreed.

“There were a lot of texts, emails, and they were good intentions, but I don’t know what you can do at this time. Like this is new for us - this is nothing that we’ve ever experienced before,” Turbeville said. “So it’s great to reach out but I don’t know. I don’t know what can be done at this time if (my son) isn’t with his peers and the educators.”

When it comes to what special needs parents should expect during a pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance in the spring about how public schools have to serve students with disabilities who have IEPs.

Andrew Lee, an editor and attorney who writes about special education law for Understood.org, said the department reiterated that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act still applies.

IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantee that all children are entitled to a free, appropriate public education.

“Now I think the thing that makes this area a little bit tricky, is that word ‘appropriate,‘” Lee cautioned. “I mean, we can all understand free and public education, but what does appropriate mean in the context of a global pandemic?”

Lee said plenty of case law exists to back up what appropriate might mean, but in the context of a more normal society. In the context of a pandemic that causes massive shutdowns -- there’s nothing in the law that says how such an occurrence could affect the fulfillment of special education.

As many have grappled with the issues at hand, Family Connection of South Carolina said they don’t have all the answers - but they’re working to help families find solutions. The nonprofit provides information and training to parents of students with disabilities.

Amy Holbert, the organization’s CEO, said that during the pandemic, she’s heard from families about the difficulty found in meeting students’ needs when schools first shut down and the lack of understanding in how individual education plans could change in the context of the upcoming school year.

She explained some of the timeline taken for how districts came to determine special education parameters.

“SPED [Special Education] directors couldn’t make those decisions until school districts were able to have their overall plans in place, so that’s what we were told. You have to have the plan for all students first and then the special education comes in -- those services are then part of a student’s education,” Holbert explained.

Horry County Schools have such parameters established as part of their reopening plan. The district recently followed up with a list of answers to frequently asked questions on their re-opening task force webpage for both special education and a variety of topics.

But it’s hard to make sense of exactly what school will look like for a child with special needs when the plan is to be individualized at the end of the day.

“Any of our populations, whether it’s special education or English learners, you know, they may have again very specific questions related to their student and their needs,” Lisa Bourcier, the district’s spokesperson, said. “So, again, while some of our FAQs may not address their specific need, we encourage them to continue to reach out to us so we can assist them.”

One particular issue staff at SOS Care have been aware of is families expressing the desire for five days of face-to-face instruction.

“These kids thrive with routine and schedule,” Tammie Cottrell said, a board-certified behavior analyst for SOS Care. “So saying this week you’re going to be virtual; next week, you’re going to go in three days or five days -- it’s going to cause problems for some of these students.”

On Thursday, the district clarified with WMBF Investigates, saying in an email: “When the county enters into a medium spread level and in-person instruction resumes for all students in the hybrid mode of instruction (two days in-person, three days distance), there may be some students with disabilities considered for additional in-person days through the IEP team process.”

It’s not clear if full-time face-to-face instruction could be available to students as part of their accommodations during a high spread situation.

Meanwhile, advocates are encouraging families to take advantage of the resources available.

“What we are hoping because we support families, is that we can arm yourself with as much information as you possibly can gather, make the best decision you can right now, know what to ask for, know how to go up the ladder to get the answers, know your rights, also know that things are going to look different,” Holbert said. “The world is different right now.”

Local parents still are hoping that discussion and brainstorming, with the right people at the table, can get them closer still to a better solution.

“My son’s situation is different from your son, and your son, and your son, but together we could probably find common things that would be helpful across the board,” Chrissy Holman-Csukas, who has a son with special needs, said. “So I would appreciate it if they would kind of reach out a bit more. And at this point, this is not bashing, but what’s best for our kids, and how can we all work together to make it happen.”

With several weeks remaining until the start of the fall, it seems that IEP meetings and LEAP Days are what will finally bring clarity to some of the families WMBF Investigates spoke with.

SOS Care’s clinic services director, Robyn Kelly, says one concern she’s hearing from families is how compensatory services will pan out, saying that they’re concerned that available data may not be reflective of any recent regression in skills or behaviors that families have been seeing in their children.

Horry County Schools encourages families who have questions to continue to reach out to their school or to email them at the address found on their website.

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