Students with special needs face additional hardships amid pandemic

September 10, 2020 — by Lihi Shoshani and Viraaj Reddi
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Students with special needs must deal with an upended routine and adapting their individual needs to a restrictive new situation.

Editor’s Note: Isaac is a pseudonym for a student who was enrolled in Saratoga High’s special education pathway. The Falcon agreed to not reveal his identity. 

Meeting with his therapist through yet another Zoom call, recently graduated senior Isaac could feel the frustration bubbling up. “It has been hard to stay not upset at times,” Isaac said, referring to the “virtual wall” between himself and society that he continues to run into. 

Isaac is one of many students in the special education program who have been forced to rapidly adjust to the glaring lifestyle change caused by the COVID-19 crisis. For the 7 million special education students across the U.S. in a similar predicament, the change has been more jarring than for most students considering the challenges they face. 

Students, parents and administrators have been working together to ease the burden of these difficulties as the new school year begins. 


Challenges with remote learning 

For students in general education, the transition to online learning has been difficult; with Isaac, for whom routine is key, the process is even more challenging. In addition to the challenges faced by general education students, special education students must fight through changes in their routine, lack of in-person relationships, and any specific disorders they face to adjust to their new reality. 

“They [the students] have attention, auditory, and visual processing disorders, and maybe there’s a mental health component. The challenges faced by our special ed students are so much more daunting,” said the district's director of students services, Heath Roch. 

According to special education department chair Brian Elliott, each special education student has an individualized education program (IEP). Administrators, guidance counselors and teachers formulate a plan that sets specific goals for the child and determines their learning environment. The plan is a legal document that aims to help each student succeed through individualized methods. 

During quarantine, these IEP teams have remained in contact with students’ families. 

“Obviously it's not the perfect model because you can't interact with the student as you could in a therapeutic setting,” Elliott said. “Our responsibility is access to education instruction, so we're focused on delivering all the services on the IEP as close as possible.”

Special education classes meet through Zoom and Google Meets during regular school times, keeping the students to an exact schedule to ease their stress.

Many students also require occupational therapy that teaches common social interactions, physical therapy to improve their gross and fine motor skills, and speech and language therapy that can help with communication. Isaac specifically deals with speech problems, slower thinking and diminished muscle development, and has increased his therapy time as a result of the situation. 

“I have had more time for therapy meetings because it has been hard to stay not upset at times,” Isaac said. “I think a lot of people have been feeling the same way.”

Though Isaac said he occasionally requires help from teachers, he often feels there is a virtual wall between them, making it much more difficult to communicate well.

“98 percent of our job is relationships and trust,” Elliot said. ”And it's difficult to build those trusting relationships just interacting with a screen.”

Additionally, Isaac struggles with time management. Though Isaac initially believed at-home work would be far easier, he’s found it much more difficult than expected, as the days feel longer, matching his growing amount of work. 

To help their students through this, Elliott and other special education teachers have been giving students schedules they can follow to better structure their day. Isaac said he greatly appreciated Elliott’s help, as he feels it is often hard to follow up with busy teachers. 

“What’s great about Mr. Elliott’s class is that he helps you connect with your teachers if you need help because the teachers are very busy with social distancing classes,” he said. 

Especially as the 2020-21 school year starts back up, the special education department has been heavily preparing for Phase 2. During this stage, special needs students are expected to come back to school in-person. 

Specifically, small groups of students will stay in one home room with their designated aid to help them through anything they need. While they will still attend class online, simply having the constant assistance of a trusted mentor is instrumental in getting back to normal. 

“Just imagine,” Elliott said hopefully, “you have an in-person support system, where teachers can interact person-to-person rather than screen-to-screen.” 


Difficulties at home

Despite difficulties readjusting to shelter-in-place, there has been a silver lining. Isaac said he was happy to spend unexpected time with his family. 

“I am watching movies with my dad and playing board games with my younger brother,” he said. “I also see my older brother more often because he is home from college.”

Special education aide Michael Morosin said he understands students’ satisfaction at spending time with his family.

“Being home can lead to the family being more cohesive and understanding of one another's needs and routines,” Morosin said.  

However, parents, who are often under tremendous stress while supporting their special needs child, now have to care for them full-time. As ABC News found, parents who work full-time and also have a child dependent on their support have found the transition nearly impossible. 

Quarantine has essentially wiped out a special education student’s typical support system, severing their connection with their trained educators and forcing parents to shoulder duties typically carried out by professionals. 

Whether it be walking their child through physical therapy or helping them practice their speech exercises, parents are alone in these tasks. While school staff and trained professionals do all they can through online platforms and mobile communication, nothing can replicate in-person interactions.  

Adding to all these challenges is some special needs students also have compromised immune systems that can leave them susceptible to the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone with an intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy or brain disorders are at increased risk for contracting and suffering from the virus. 

Isaac does not have any pre-existing conditions that place him at a higher risk to coronavirus. However, he has become frustrated as he struggles to deal with his speech impediment, learning disability and poor muscle development in quarantine. 

Despite the challenges, Isaac and his family are finding ways to adjust. With the support of the administration and his professional team, he and others affected by this quarantine are doing the best they can to adapt in such turbulent times. 

Still, one thing is clear: For Isaac and his support system, along with the dozens of special needs students at the school, the return to in-person education will help alleviate many of the difficulties they have faced in the past six months.