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‘We Can’t Afford To Have Him Left Behind’: Special Ed Students Struggle During School Shutdown

Updated 4 p.m., March 24

Chicago mom Ieshia Townsend is determined not to let her 8-year-old son fall behind during the COVID-19 school shutdown. She’s taken it upon herself to reach out to his special education aide and ask what will be done for him.

The answer?

“She said they don’t know what they are going to do with children [who are in special education], but they are determined to get something done,” Townsend said.

Townsend is not waiting. She has devised a schedule for her son that includes working on a laptop, then worksheets and flashcards. After being in special education herself and ultimately dropping out of school, she refuses to let her son be hurt by the closure.

“We can’t afford to have him left behind,” said Townsend, who lives in the South Chicago neighborhood on the South Side. “I know how it feels to be a parent and a student that got left behind, and I don’t want that for anyone else.”

Since Chicago Public Schools closed last week, the question of how students should be educated during the shutdown has loomed. Intertwined with this is the more complicated question of what can and should be done for students with special needs.

On Wednesday, the school district provided some guidance to administrators about obligations for meeting the needs of special education students during the shutdown, but it was vague. It said “CPS is committed to ensuring that every student remains engaged throughout the school closure period and will continue to provide students with learning resources.” 

CPS pointed to learning packets for students handed out last week, but this material is for general education students, such as grade level resource packets and activities and the state Board of Education’s resource library. CPS offered no specific guidance on adapting those resources for special education students.

The state and federal governments are responsible for enforcing the law that requires students with disabilities to be provided a “free and appropriate education.”

At first, the state told schools they could assign work and grade it, but only if it improved a student’s overall grade. That meant students in school districts that didn’t have online learning, students in special education who couldn’t do the work without support, or poor students who could not log on, wouldn’t have their grades suffer.

But this weekend, the federal government put out new guidance, telling schools they should not hold off online learning because of concern about special education students.

However, Barb Cohen, a staff attorney for the Legal Council for Health Justice, said the guidance acknowledged it would be nearly impossible to provide some services. For example, it might be relatively easy to have students who are visually impaired get text-to-speech, but it would be difficult to do physical therapy online.

“What it is basically saying is, ‘Do the best you can do,’” Cohen said. “You still have responsibilities, but we understand if you can’t meet them all.”

The state has not followed with any new guidance yet, but officials have acknowledged that if the shutdown is extended, it might be necessary for schools to allow remote online learning assignments to be graded normally and not just for extra credit.

But what that means for students with disabilities in Chicago and elsewhere is unclear. Advocates, teachers and parents point out that some don’t have access to computers or the internet; some can’t grasp online content; and others are guaranteed the support of people like social workers and therapists.

/Provided photo
Chicago mother Ieshia Townsend works with her son Mariano Alexandria on his laptop at their South Chicago home during the COVID-19 school closure.

“I have to totally help him”

Townsend said her son is ready to dig into work on a computer — and she is thankful that she bought him one recently. “I really think that is God’s doing,” she said.

But many of her friends and their children at Arthur Ashe Elementary on the South Side are not as lucky. She said all of them have cell phones, but few have computers or the internet. She is letting them come over and use her computer in the meantime.

Chicago Public Schools is planning to try to bridge some of the digital divide. On Wednesday, March 25, the Board of Education will vote on a plan to allow CPS to spend up to $75 million to deal with the school closure, including a rollout of a “larger device equity strategy.”

Officials declined to provide any more details.

But even some parents with ample technology say their children aren’t able to get much out of it.

Venecia Sanchez said her 10-year-old son’s teacher puts a lot of activities online. One is a program that allows students to virtually visit a national park. Another has stories to be read to students.

She said she is enjoying the activities, but her son can only do them if she is full-on engaged. He is on the autism spectrum, is non-verbal and has a short attention span.

“They post stuff for kids to do, but it is not anything that he can do, like write about what you observe in your house. I mean he can’t write,” she said. “I have to totally help him.”

Sanchez said she feels like the teachers at Thorp Elementary School in Portage Park on the Northwest Side are doing the best they can. Yet she sees a big difference in what her 13-year-old daughter, who is in general education, is learning compared with her son.

Special education teacher Christina Peacock said it is frustrating because she has gotten little direction from anyone. She works alongside a regular teacher supporting special education 6th and 7th graders at Stone Elementary in West Ridge.

She said her co-teacher has been giving assignments, having students read articles and getting them ready for the Constitution Test. She has had to lean on her “tech savvy” husband to figure out how she can adjust the lessons for her students, some of whom have learning disabilities and others who are on the autism spectrum.

“I am doing a lot of learning alongside them,” she said.

And, though she is doing what she can, she is haunted by a feeling that her students aren’t being well served.

“It worries me that we are not doing them justice,” she said.

Parents and teachers say that the academic component is only part of what their children are missing. The other services, such as physical, speech and occupational therapy, are also critical.

At the moment, the federal and state guidance is that students who miss services may qualify for extra time once school is back in session. But they’d have to prove the student regressed as a result of missing the service.

In the guidance released Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools officials said they are still “working through” the question of whether students will automatically get more minutes of service. Also, officials say they are exploring teletherapy and video therapy and will update families after getting more information from the state.

Peacock said she thinks students should automatically get to make up time they missed with clinicians. She said the team that put the services in the student individual plans did so because they needed them.

“I don’t know what will happen after this”

The parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities say that for their sons and daughters, school is an important place to learn social skills, to be on an all-important schedule and get the emotional support they need.

Sanchez said she tried to explain what is going on to her son, using a story specifically written so that children with autism can understand. But last week when Sanchez took her son outside for some fresh air, he was confused.

“He was making his way to the car because he thought surely we are going somewhere,” she said. “So it is hard to say if he understands completely what is going on.”

Sanchez said it is disappointing because even after the disruption of the teachers strike last fall, he has made progress this year.

“I don’t know what will happen after this,” she said. “It is hard to say. I guess we will find out once we go back.”

Sanchez is a nurse who works on weekends so she has time to help her son.

But Ed Bryant said he and his wife are really struggling. Their 5-year-old son and daughter are both autistic, and he and his wife are supposed to be doing their own work at home.

He said they have been shocked at how much work they are supposed to do in kindergarten. They get worksheets, flashcards, art projects and even assignments for gym class.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “At school they have multiple trained professionals to help them. We want to give them everything we can, but it is really a lot to juggle.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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