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Distance Learning is Failing Special Needs Kids Like Mine

Let’s get one thing straight, once and for all: Distance learning is crap. Didn’t we just spend years being bombarded with warnings about excessive screen time and the physical and mental damage it does? Well, now, thanks to COVID-19 we get to face nationwide school shutdowns and an unknown number of months of distance learning, aka 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 actually 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 used to getting services through their schools, such as specific therapies, are now 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, during which his therapists make suggestions. Mostly this entails them saying “See if you can get him to [insert task here]” and asking if I have any questions.

Yes. I have questions.

In fact, 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 paraprofessional. 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. After all, they were there back when we started my son with 15 minutes at school per day; he would scream the entire time. It took almost a full year to work our way up to four hours per day, and now, he adores school. When I showed him a picture of his classroom aide from her Facebook recently, he started sobbing and kissing the screen.

We’ve been quarantined for 89 days. Every single day, my son brings me his shoes and drags his backpack to the door.

Forget “making progress” with his education and therapy; 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 only, screaming bloody murder. All the steps forward he took, all that progress — and now, the best we can do is hope things don’t go back to the beginning.

Come fall, my son Trip will have been without services for six months. Six 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. These kids, the ones who need help the most, are supposed to do…nothing? Get nothing? Fall even farther behind their neurotypical classmates?

It’s heartbreaking to watch your kid struggle. That goes for any parent. For those of us with children with special needs, watching their struggle with “distance learning” is a daily battle. And with the fate of schools reopening still unclear, the thought of doing this for another two, or four, or six months, makes my stomach drop.

In schools (the good ones, at least), entire classrooms are built for students with special needs — specifically to help them grow and learn. There are sensory materials, areas to focus and work, and areas to calm down and play. That environment doesn’t exist within distance learning. It doesn’t exist within my packed, busy house.

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, 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 education right now are the ones for whom screen-staring comes easy.

Students with any kind of special needs or disabilities are losing out immensely right now, and my heart goes out to them, and their parents — all of us who are trying to keep some semblance of our child’s schedule and daily routine intact while also working, filling in as therapists, taking care of our other children, and working some more. That’s not a tenable situation. These kids deserve more, they deserve better, and dammit so do we parents.

A version of this story was originally published in June 2019.

Here are the best toys to keep kids off their screens when they’re not distance learning.

Cool Toys

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