Rebecca Monticello’s son, Patrick, watches instruction during remote learning last spring.

Rebecca Monticello’s son, Patrick, watches instruction during remote learning last spring.

Photo provided by Rebecca Monticello

Will students with special accommodations still learn virtually?

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published August 24, 2020


FARMINGTON/HILLS — As many students across Michigan prepare for another round of remote learning this fall, districts are attempting to avoid a repeat of last spring.

The Farmington Public Schools Board of Education voted 5-2 Aug. 11 to start the district in a fully remote environment. Trustees Terry Johnson and Terri Weems voted against the administrative recommendation.

Calling in-person education “essential” for students, Johnson said he voted no because he didn’t believe remote learning is best for the students.

FPS Special Education Director Jackie McDougal said that even with remote learning, students in general education will likely fare better and recoup missed skills faster than the roughly 12% of students in the district with special accommodations; 1,100 Farmington Public Schools students have an individualized education program.

So how will students with special needs fare in a school year riddled with pandemic-induced changes?


‘It’s heartbreaking to watch’
Oakland County Intermediate School District Special Populations Executive Director Karen Olex believes “there’s going to be problems everywhere and there’s going to be positives everywhere,” when it comes to the upcoming school year.

One thing Olex believes will be made painfully obvious is how underfunded special education is across the nation. She said special education programs haven’t “been funded appropriately since (their) inception in the early ’70s.”

Not only is funding an issue, but moving to a virtual setting puts many special education and IEP students at a disadvantage, explained Judson Center Director of Autism Services Frankie Groce. She said that while every student has their individual strengths and needs, many times those with disabilities have trouble staying attentive or simply sitting in front of a computer screen for a long time.

“You can imagine it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do 20-30 hours a week through telehealth or virtually. That’s one of the barriers,” Groce said, adding that other obstacles are the need for more immediate reinforcers to imprint the learning and physical prompting to teach certain skills that can’t be as easily done remotely.

Parent Rebecca Monticello, whose son will start kindergarten at Gill Elementary School this year with a speech therapy IEP, is no stranger to the challenges underscored by her son being involved in remote learning. She feels lucky she’s not a working parent on top of it all.

“Getting a 4-year-old to sit down at a computer and focus for half an hour has its challenges. They want to touch buttons and not focus,” she said. “When you’re doing speech (therapy), there’s certain times you need to actually touch certain parts of their face to cue certain sounds. … I’m not a speech therapist, and I don’t feel comfortable doing those more technical things with them. The virtual speech is good because he’s still getting something, but it’s definitely not as effective as in person.”

McDougal acknowledges that students with disabilities “tend to have more difficulty functioning in a remote setting and performing virtually.” That’s why her department plans to input paraprofessionals directly into the virtual learning process. Paraprofessionals will be virtually present alongside general education teachers during instruction and will stay online with their students as they transition into individual learning sessions to continue to provide support.

But will that be enough? Will students needing accommodations still be able to develop the skills needed to move forward?

“It’s extremely difficult. I’ll just call it what it is,” Johnson, who has a son with an IEP, said. “As a parent, we’re not set up to be teachers, especially teachers with special education qualifications and requirements. The difficulty is you watch your child regress, and it’s very painful. … It’s heartbreaking to watch.”


‘It’s possible for every child to grow’
Despite the challenges that come with the situation, Monticello is hopeful that the outcomes this fall may be better than they were last spring.

“I hope it’ll be a little better knowing there’s required work, instead of being given things just to occupy their time. I’m hoping for a more structured schedule, but it’s definitely still going to be challenging.”

She also hopes it may be possible to have in-person speech therapy, stating that she doesn’t understand how the district can offer child care with the YMCA at their buildings but not bring in students for small group or one-on-one sessions with their specialists.

“I know the speech teachers in a normal school year have an overloaded schedule, and it’s hard to get all of those hours that every single kid needs,” she said. “I am worried about him not getting the required hours that he needs, speech therapy-wise.”

“It’d be wrong,” Olex said, to say there are no concerns about developmental delays with students with special needs learning remotely.

“The challenge is going to be making sure the special needs students of high-incidence disabilities — the learning disabled or emotionally impaired child — have access to the general education curriculum, as well as the IEP-identified special education supports in a reasonable timeframe.”

Oakland County ISD officials have been leveraging their special education staff to support kids across the ISD, as they did before the pandemic, and have added their expertise through at least 15 different countywide task forces created to address issues under the special education umbrella.

McDougal said that Michigan allowing students with disabilities to age out at age 26, rather than age 22, as in other states, provides an extra four years of learning in which development can be spread out. “I don’t think we get so far behind. I think the learning now just takes on a different pace, because now there’s not that in-person component that goes with it,” she said.

But Groce said if a parent isn’t able to sit with their child as they work virtually, “you could have some kids that get a little lost, because they need that extra support.”

McDougal said she recognizes the frustration and learning curves that parents may face this school year. The district provided families with a parent training last spring, she said, and she intends to host another in September. The district’s monthly Parent Connect meetings will continue, though dates have not yet been set. The district’s annual informational fair, where agencies come in and provide specific information for parents based on their child’s needs, will likely move to a virtual fair.

“We will work directly with our parents to help support their learning during this time. We don’t want them becoming frustrated and (not) knowing how to help their students during this, because it’s frustrating for all of us,” McDougal said. “The learning doesn’t stop just because we’re virtual. We just have to get the information to the parents in a different way.”

As an optimist, Olex believes “it’s possible for every child to grow and actually flourish in an online learning environment,” but she acknowledges that possible doesn’t always mean probable.


‘If we can bring them back safely, we want to do so’
Under the board-approved plan, FPS will begin  in an online-only format and will begin looking to phase special populations back into the district after Oct. 30, but McDougal said the district’s students with the most severe disabilities — students with autism or cognitive impairments — will be returning to school right away.

“For those students, we really wanted to bring them back for at least four half days a week, and in some respects, we’re going to be able to do that. For others we won’t, because we just don’t have the staff to be able to pull those classes together,” McDougal said.

McDougal would ideally like to phase in a group of special needs students every couple of weeks, she said, but she doesn’t want to risk anything by moving too quickly, either.

“I don’t want to take a chance with students until I think we have some protocol in place to protect the students and the staff. Believe me, it’s scary … but I also know that if we can bring them back safely, we want to do so.”

Monticello said she recognizes the tug-of-war position the district is currently in, but regardless, she feels that a lot of questions have been left unanswered for her and other parents. She said she still doesn’t know who her son’s kindergarten teacher will be for the upcoming year.

“It’s tough, because I know they’re in a tough spot. There’s parents who don’t want their kids in school, and then there’s parents who do. I personally want my kids in school, so it’s a tough spot, but I would just like to have more information.”

Given the predicament, McDougal asks the district’s parents for patience.

“We know they learn best when they’re in front of us … but please be patient, because this is a pandemic,” she said. “This is something that we have no control over. We want to make sure we do whatever we do with the greatest precautions in place as possible.”

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