Distance Learning is Failing Special Needs Kids Like Mine

Distance learning is crap. Having spent years being bombarded with warnings about excessive screen time and the physical and mental damage it does, thanks to the Coronavirus, we are now faced with nationwide school shutdowns and an unknown number of months of distance learning, the only option for kids to “learn.” If that’s what you can even call it.

But even teachers are finding they don’t have the resources, expertise, or emotional wherewithal to successfully homeschool their own kids. For some kids, distance learning is literally impossible. And for kids with special needs like my son, who is autistic and nonverbal? Forget about it. Distance learning offers special needs kids precisely none of the things that are necessary to help them learn.

Many of these kids have autism like my son, and/or sensory issues, visual/physical/auditory disabilities, or a myriad of other issues that make it impossible for them to sit and look at a screen all day — or even for a little bit. Often they require someone with them, helping them throughout their day, like an aid or a paraprofessional. They rely on routine, and predictability. Children who are getting services through their schools like specific therapies, are only getting tele-therapy, which again, relies on their ability to look at a computer screen for an extended period of time.

My son was at school for four hours a day, five days a week. He was getting hours of physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. Now, we get a 30 minute zoom call once a week, where his therapists make suggestions, say “See if you can get him to…” and ask if I have any questions. Yes. I have questions. I still feel like I’m vastly under qualified to be a parent- I am definitely vastly under qualified to be replacing three therapists and a para professional. My son needs help. And he’s not getting it.

I know there isn’t much anyone can do. Thanks to quarantine, in house visits from private therapy companies aren’t happening. My son’s wonderful, kind teachers tell me every week that they wish they could do more. They hear my frustrations, and I know they are frustrated too. They were there when we started with 15 minutes at school, with Trip screaming bloody murder the entire time. It took almost a full year to work our way up to four hours, and now, he adores school. When I showed him a picture of his classroom aid from her Facebook, he started sobbing and kissing the screen.

We’ve been quarantined for 89 days, and every. Single. Day. He brings me his shoes and drags his backpack to the door. Forget making progress, the best-case scenario, the absolute best we can hope for is that he doesn’t regress. How is that ok?  I’ve had nightmares that when the kids finally do go back to school in person, my son will be back to 15 minutes, screaming bloody murder. All the steps forward he took, all the progress, and now, the best we can do is hope things don’t get worse?

Come fall, Trip will have been without services for 6 months. 6 entire months. And aside from the frustration and anger I feel as his parent, I can’t believe that in situations like this, there isn’t a better plan in place for kids with special needs. For kids like Trip who can’t talk to their teachers on the phone, or can’t sit for an hour long zoom meeting, or follow along to videos on Google Classroom, they’re supposed to do…nothing? Get nothing? Fall even farther behind their classmates?

It’s heartbreaking to watch your kid struggle, for any parent. For a child with special needs, their struggle with distance learning is a daily battle. And with the fate of schools reopening unclear, the thought of doing this for another two, or four, or six months, makes my stomach drop. In schools, classrooms are built for students with special needs specifically to help them grow and learn, with sensory materials, areas to focus and work, and areas to calm down and play. That environment doesn’t exist within distance learning.

And no, I’m not saying these kids should be back in school right now. Coronavirus has robbed kids of many things, and I’m not willing to risk anyone’s life just so the kids can have the normalcy of school. What I’m saying is that there should be a plan in place, for all kids, I repeat, ALL kids- regardless of their physical or mental abilities, economic standing, or parental involvement, to have a chance to get a decent education and the services they need. It’s shameful that the only kids who have access to these things are ones who fit within the box of the restrictions of distance learning.

Students with any kind of special needs or disabilities are losing out immensely right now during this pandemic, and my heart goes out to them, and their parents, who are trying to hold down the fort and keep some semblance of their child’s schedule and daily routine in tact, while also working, filling in as therapists, taking care of their other children, and working. That’s not a tenable situation. These kids deserve more, they deserve better.

Sensory toys like these can make a world of difference for kids on the spectrum — but honestly, any kid will love them.






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