When Brittany Waller comes home from her two jobs and finishes classes at Thomas Nelson Community College, she has to find time to educate her five children, one has special needs.
“It’s mentally and emotionally draining in every aspect of the word,” she said.
Waller’s son, Aiden, is a sixth grade student at Toano Middle School with special needs due to the neurological disorder, Neurofibromatosis type 1, which impacts his speech and content comprehension.
When Gov. Ralph Northam closed schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the education of her son and other children fell to Waller and her family.
“It’s definitely very difficult,” Waller said. “I’m able to work with him to where he doesn’t get as frustrated, but I’m not trained to do these things. Knowledge and skills that [special education teachers] have and that I have are two very different things.”
Susan Radosta, mother of a 10th grader with autism, said education is a struggle for all parents right now but particularly for those who have children with special needs.
Radosta said her daughter, Emily, was confused and lost when she first had to switch to at-home learning because many children with special needs rely on a structure and schedule to get through the day.
“Many of [special needs] kids are schedule-oriented,” Radosta said. “So you’re taking them away from that and it’s difficult to go through the day. We say ‘let’s do algebra and then art,’ she has to go in the order her classes were in.”
Without the structure, both Radosta and Waller said their special needs children get distracted and have a difficult time completing tasks.
But even when their children are able to sit down to do school work, some parents with special needs find themselves at a loss because they don’t know the material or the tools their child has learned.
For example, Radosta said her daughter has been struggling with algebra so she and her husband can only take the lessons so far. Her daughter participates in Zoom sessions, which she is guaranteed at least 20 instructional minutes each week, but they typically involve other students who might be at a different level.
“We just depend so much on Zoom,” Radosta said. “And we just have to sit there and hope that other kids don’t call in while we’re calling. We’re promised only but so much time and we just have to be careful it isn’t wasted.”
Waller said during the school year her son was in special education classes for English and math but other classes were general education. Now, the information being sent home by teachers only addresses the general education population which provides a challenge because her son isn’t on the same level.
In addition, Waller said another concern is the amount of time between now and when he’ll be in the classroom again.
“I’m usually concerned about him losing a lot of the things he’s learned and this has increased my worry,” she said. “It’ll be five months before he’s in a classroom again and for a general education child that’s a long time, but for someone in special education that’s like doubling it.”
To make up for the loss, Radosta said her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan, which outlines a student’s goals for the year, has been shifted.
“She’s not in a situation right now where she has to worry about the goals as much, I suppose,” Radosta said. “So the goals will just have to sit and wait because there’s no real way to address them.”
Radosta and Waller said they also worry about the personal interaction and social skills their children are missing out on. A lot of special needs students work on goals that involve socializing with others in person, which they aren’t able to do while social distancing.
“I can see when he wants to go out and do something,” Waller said. “He’s a very outgoing little boy and have to keep it inside is hurting him.”
Both Waller and Radosta said it’s clear the school system is doing as much as they can to help students and as time continues without access to regular education, schools and parents have to continue to work better to provide what they can for students.
“It’s just hard to figure out what’s enough,” Waller said. “Am I giving them enough of those resources or time? It’s not easy and I’ve cried tears at wanting to give my child the best, but we’re just going to have to get through this.”
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