Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Special needs students face learning obstacles during Covid-19

Kaden McShane, who has autism, takes virtual classes. Photo by Cheryl McShane

Back to school for special needs students during a pandemic is hard. Structured routines and social contact is limited making it even harder for them to thrive both academically and socially.

“He’s not able to organically look around the room and see how his friends are acting — that they’re calm, and quiet and that’s how I should be acting,” Cheryl McShane said, She is the mother of Kaden, 16, a student in Washington Township, New Jersey who has autism. “Without getting all of the social cues in-person, it’s very easy for him to disconnect.”

Kaden has adapted to online learning pretty well, she said. But with the new school year comes a new challenge as Kaden is transitioning from middle school to high school. His first two week are held virtually, then starting September 21, his classes go hybrid. 

“My son has not had the opportunity to get familiar with the building or staff,”McShane said. “The unknown can spike anxiety, aggression, lack of motivation, etc. Having a teacher that has never met my son in person or worked closely with him, makes it very difficult for the teacher and student to make progress”.

In Crescent Elementary School in Voorhees, New Jersey, school this fall is divided into two groups, with kids being in-person two days a week, and remote the remaining two. 

Guidance Counselor Maureen Boyle takes precaution as her school prepares to come back to in person teaching this fall. Photo by Maureen Boyle

“The special education kids have the option to come all four days because they need the most socialization,” Maureen Boyle, a guidance counselor at Crescent, said. “They can come with both groups of students because they need the most in-person interaction.”

Most special needs students receive 1:1 support which ranges anywhere from speech therapy, occupational therapy and help for specific subjects. But overcoming the COVID-19 challenges remains a feat.

“I provide my students with as much individual accommodation as I can,” Evelyn Ingraham, an education specialist at San Diego Cooperative Charter.. “I’ll use handheld, concrete things to help teach certain concepts, but with these students, it’s just not accessible for them virtually. I’ve seen 80% of my students regress. They need direct, explicit instruction and that just has to happen in person.”

Ingraham, who teaches 10-12 year olds,  said the adapted physical education teacher is doing his best to create documents that mimic the exercises he once did for his special needs students.

“They feel like they’re at such a stand still because they can’t physically help them,” said Ingraham. “They can’t go to their houses and help guide them through these exercises. If they can record a video of it, great, if not, they just hope they did it”.

Pulling students from classes and holding interventions now have to meet CDC safety guidelines, which interfere with the crucial connections teachers need to make with these students. 

“In order help with contact tracing if anyone gets sick, the goal is to keep the kids in as small of groups as possible and not to interact with other people. I don’t know how this is going to work.”

Ingraham said she can no longer pull students out of classes to work with her in small groups.

 “My students loved being in groups with one another,” Ingraham said. “We now have to create breakout rooms which just aren’t the same. I barely have any time with my students now.”

But there are silver linings.

“We’re seeing a little extra piece of him we wouldn’t typically get to see,” McShane said of Kaden. “We would never be able to see that if we didn’t have this much time at home trying to do academics. We’ve kind of embraced it.”


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