Parents of students with developmental disabilities discuss triumphs, challenges of virtual learning

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INDIANAPOLIS – With record numbers of COVID-19 cases reported in recent days, some school districts in Indiana are preparing to return to virtual learning, including all schools in Marion County.

Throughout the pandemic, many students have had to adapt to changes in learning models – from hybrid learning to virtual learning — but for some children with developmental disabilities, this can be especially difficult.

Many experts say a well-structured routine is crucial to helping students with disabilities succeed, particularly during these unprecedented times.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education’s guidance on supporting students with disabilities during COVID-19 and afterward, “Children, particularly those with disabilities, may struggle with significant adjustments to their routines (e.g., schools and child care closures, social distancing, home confinement), which may interfere with their sense of structure, predictability, and security.”

Denisse Jensen, Executive Director of GiGi’s Playhouse Downtown Achievement Center in Indianapolis, a nonprofit that provides support services for individuals with Down Syndrome, said routine is critical to any learner.  However, “for our friends in the special needs community they are much more — they need the socialization and we’ve seen the statistics that say peer modeling and full inclusion really helps with their development,” said Jensen.

Jensen said the first few months of the pandemic were telling of the way school districts handled the transition for students with developmental disabilities. 

“What we’ve seen since March is that virtual learning, you know, many of our friends digressed and many of school districts are not prepared to try and transition into virtual learning for the special needs population,” she said.

She hopes as more schools transition back to virtual learning, for developmentally disabled students, they are more well-equipped with what they need to succeed this time around.

“We saw many friends were sent home with nothing and they were just sitting at home and for us, that’s multiple months of them digressing at a much more expedient rate than their peers,” she said. “What I’m hopeful is that the virtual plan is for full inclusion that the plan is for all kids and I think that was missed in March.”

Jensen said many of the families the organization works with have decided to take a step further than virtual learning and switch to a homeschooling model.

“Many friends don’t do well with virtual learning so many of our parents in our organization have switched in doing kind of at-home learning, taking on being their teacher, parent, and even their therapist,” she said.

She said a significant amount of students the organization works with have occupational therapists, speech therapists, and the same goes for many other students with developmental disabilities. She says much of that was paused in March, creating the added strain on parents of also providing those services for their students with disabilities.

Jessica Savage, whose children attend school at Hamilton Southeastern Schools, said her son has several ‘rare’ syndromes and the top priority this year has been keeping him healthy, which includes staying away from others as much as possible and learning virtually.

She said because her son is medically complex, they have remained virtual and completely stayed home since March, but between trying to work with his special education teacher, grade-level teacher, and aide, plus all of the changes to his schedule, it hasn’t always been easy.

“My son thrives on routine and changes are met with a lot of tears and frustration. He loves his teachers, therapists, and aides and, generally speaking, will work for them,” said Savage. “Working for mom & dad is another story. It has taken months for him to do any kind of homework for us. With HSE, the changes from 100% virtual to 50/50 to 100% in person rocked his little world,” she wrote to CBS4.

Savage said Friday was the first day in weeks he has seen his special education classmates since they moved everyone to virtual for the day.

Though Savage believes with her son is missing a bit of instruction and peer interaction, she said the staff at HSE have made his transition to virtual learning an easier one. “The HSE staff has been AMAZING!!!” she wrote. “We are able to do weekly OT, PT, and ST, as well as have 1 on 1 time with his SPED teacher and aide each day, all by zoom. They have done doorstep material drop offs and even arranged for all his SPED & 2nd grade classmates to line up outside for us to do a birthday drive-by a couple weeks ago.”

The biggest success for Savage’s son, she said, is his speech.

“Prior to Covid, my son was considered ‘nonverbal,’ primarily relying on a communication device to speak. He only had a handful of word approximations and the only consonant he could pronounce was ‘M,’” said Savage. “Something about all the time in his comfort zone seemed to have triggered a strong desire to use his voice. He can now pronounce all the consonants and is fully talking & reading verbally. We thought he would be a lifelong AAC (communication device) user, so to hear his sweet voice every day is nothing short of amazing!”

Christi Marie Line-Pitcock, who has two children with developmental disabilities that attend school in Johnson County, chose to begin the 2020-2021 school year on a virtual learning plan. She said her main priority for virtual learning is the health of her children and family members with compromised immune systems.

For Line-Pitcock, she said the impact during spring of 2020 as many schools were rapidly changing their learning plans also played a factor in her decision. “That was another reason why we chose virtual because I knew if everything opened up, we’d be back and forth, and my autistic son cannot handle it.”

She said there have been challenges as they have navigated the virtual learning process. “Neither one of my kids handle group zooms very well because there’s too many kids,” said Line-Pitcock.

However, she said her children are thriving and it is being reflected in their grades.

Line-Pitcock explained she knows the situation and whether virtual learning works well for a family is on a case-to-case basis. Being a stay-at-home mom, she said she has the ability to dedicate much of her day to helping her children learn and adapt to the changes the pandemic has brought to their education.

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