Parents stepped up to support their kids when schools in South Florida closed their doors.
Published: June 12, 2020
By: Jennifer Jhon
The recent shift in South Florida to schooling at home was a struggle for many families, but it posed a particular challenge for students with special needs.
Students with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) receive allowances in school to accommodate their learning challenges. Some receive academic instruction or specialized therapy in a small group, others have teacher’s aides in the classroom.
Many have altered assignments, accommodations for movement and more.
The sudden switch to a home environment may have removed some of those supports, but it allowed parents to take a much greater role in their children’s education.
Mandy Crespo, a mother of two in Miramar, had a son with special needs in fourth grade when distance learning went into effect.
“Before the pandemic, he was always behind in class, there was never enough time in the school day for him,” Crespo said. “He was actually begging for something to help him to focus.”
Her son is in a mainstream fourth-grade class, which means he switched between two teachers for his classes. “He had trouble transitioning and keeping up. … He would constantly forget his books, his binders, his agenda book with what he was supposed to do at home, and it was super frustrating for both him and my husband and I.”
An IEP added accommodations for his classwork and homework, Crespo said, but he still was having trouble.
Then distance learning began, which gave him flexible time to finish work throughout the day. His teachers made it clear what to turn in on Friday, and he finished it on time with very little, if any, parental help, she said.
Not only are her son’s grades better, she said, but he is more confident and is not anxious anymore. He would wake up and cook breakfast without worrying if he would be at school on time, she said. “He is calmer now.”
Despite their success, Crespo said they plan to send their son back to school for fifth grade, if possible, because he plans to have a role on his school’s morning announcements, and he wants to experience the many fifth-grade milestones.
For middle school and high school, however, she thinks virtual schooling might be best.
“The one good thing this pandemic showed me is that he is capable of and does better in this type of environment. Although he could do middle school with six different teachers, I don’t think that will be the best for him.”
Fabiola Pepe, the mother of a seventh-grader in Coral Springs, liked seeing first-hand during the shutdown what her daughter struggles with and how much help she needs, but she said the negatives of schooling at home outweighed the positives.
Her daughter has an IEP for a learning disability, and before the schools closed, she was really starting to do well. “She had opportunities to get help. They offered once-a-week instruction for smaller groups,” Pepe said. “Now due to the quarantine, I feel my daughter lost every opportunity to excel in the seventh grade.”
After two weeks of schooling at home, her daughter’s IEP teacher reached out to Pepe. “She, of course, was helpful and let us know their services were open when we needed it.”
But it wasn’t enough, she said. “The first couple of assignments were difficult, as there were no clear instructions. … Her reading teacher was the most helpful. (But) her math teacher would only send links to Khan Academy for help, and that’s it! For a typical learner, this was probably OK. However, for someone like my daughter, it was super confusing.”
Pepe said she feels her daughter was one of many struggling to adjust. In her classes, she received only an assignment and a day and time to complete it, with no real teaching.
“You’re not learning anything by doing this. Children with learning disabilities will most certainly struggle further. I feel, at least for this group, some sort of video instruction would’ve helped.”
Pepe said if schools resume distance learning in the fall, she hopes the system will work differently. “I hope that at least the government would provide some assistance with getting the kind of virtual education that these kids deserve.”
Johanna Ward, an ESE teacher at Silver Ridge Elementary, said one of the challenges of schooling from home, especially for students with special needs, is that everyone is different.
“We all learn differently, and if someone has a disability, then it is something else [to deal with] as well,” she said. “It adds up.”
Teaching such students means being flexible, Ward said. “It is taking the time to observe, and trying different strategies, and seeing what works best with the child.”
Closing school campuses, for her, meant learning all the programs available online. “It took a little bit for me to learn and navigate that,” she said.
Although she was encouraged not to do live video with students, she said, “I still ended up doing it because if I have them do it on their own, I don’t know what they’re doing and how.”
Because she teaches in a smaller, special-needs classroom, she did one-on-one video. “It just took some time,” she said.
During the summer, Ward said, she’s going to continue researching distance-learning options. “I’m trying different things to prepare for August, other ways to be able to do it. It’s not that easy for our students.”