Parents of children who have learning and behavioral differences that require an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan with their school districts have been especially challenged by the switch to remote learning due to COVID-19.
It’s fair to say that many of our region’s families feel like they’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Three months of very little school, followed by two months of summer vacation, and last-minute negotiations between districts and teachers unions to hammer out remote learning for fall, have left many parents exhausted and angry.
Families feel they are being tasked with the impossible this school year and are coping in a variety of ways.
“It’s so much harder to be a parent of kids with differences,” says Trip O’Dell, a father of three children in the Shoreline School District, all of whom have either an IEP or 504 plan. His 8-year-old has broken three TVs in three years. Staying still is challenging for him, and he is in constant motion. He does not read yet, and along with his dyslexia, he is on the autism spectrum. O’Dell describes him as very bright, but says he requires a lot of support and gets frustrated very easily.
O’Dell, who struggles with dyslexia himself, is a former teacher and is a consultant with expertise in education technology.
“What we’re not doing well right now is effective distance learning,” he says. “This isn’t it … in particular for kids who have learning differences.”
His school provided class social check-ins, videos and worksheet packets for students. Remote check-in office hours were provided to special-education families, but there was no instruction to accompany it. There was no reading support provided for his son.
O’Dell feels the school district failed his kids by not providing any services online or in person and not paying for outside help for children who need it. “They’ve refused to offer the support that they are required to by law,” he says, referring to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil-rights law applying to public elementary and secondary schools that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
O’Dell was moved to action after attending an online Shoreline Special Needs PTSA meeting in August, where, he says, the advice to parents to keep kids engaged over the summer was to take your child on a scavenger hunt. Beyond frustrated, he filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union, only to be redirected to OSPI, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. O’Dell is not alone in his activism: a group of Shoreline parents have created a petition, “Equity in Remote Learning,” proposing how to improve equitable practices for the most marginalized students.
One of several proposals it lays out is to offer home visits and small-group instruction at schools, to “bring high-quality education to students who are furthest removed from educational justice safely and with intentionality.” It also offers recommendations for how to safely eliminate technological barriers and allow for “complete student participation in remote learning while minimizing layoffs of transportation staff.”
Erin, a mother of three whose oldest son is enrolled in Seattle Public Schools and has an IEP, says that his middle-school study-skills class “completely went by the wayside” last spring.
“The teacher was supposed to meet with kids once a week, but it sometimes didn’t occur,” she says. She’s frustrated that the district and teachers union have been slow to finalize distance learning plans for the fall. “They should have been doing this back in May,” she says.
O’Dell points out that the pandemic didn’t create these problems. “The system was broken,” he says, acknowledging that the kids receiving direct services were already behind. “It just made it hard enough so now everyone is feeling the pain.”
He started a podcast in March called “Brave New Workforce” to talk about the evolution of the workplace and rethinking how we work. He argues in a recent episode that the same is true for school – that parents need to rethink the school model and make it work for them.
Emily Cherkin, a former educator who is the founder of The Screentime Consultant, echoes this message.
“You might have to think of school happening at 4 p.m. and not 9 a.m.,” especially if you’re working, she says. She recognizes that although remote learning has worked for some kids, it hasn’t for the majority – and especially not for kids with IEPs.
“Kids with IEPs are often more prone to other challenges,” she says. A child with dyslexia may also have ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which can make them susceptible to screen addiction and hyperstimulation. She recommends parents be more intentional with technology. And she says that if remote learning just isn’t working, don’t do it.
“We’re not creative thinkers when it comes to public education,” says Cherkin. ”I wish that parents would trust that letting their kids play is learning. Cooking is math. Taking a bath is science. It’s conceptual, not formalized, but that doesn’t mean it’s not learning.”
In a recent article for Medium, she wrote about strategies families can use to manage the challenges of remote learning.
One strategy Shoreline parent Elena Kuo and her husband used last spring was to supplement their 10- and 14-year-old children’s curriculum with home economics: The kids took on everything from learning how to sew a button, to planning and cooking meals, to help manage the household budget.
Kuo acknowledges that their lifestyle allows them to be more flexible and creative. She works full time while her husband homeschools their 10-year-old, making him available to support their older child with schoolwork as needed.
Erin says that being a stay-at-home mother has allowed her to fill in the learning gaps for her son with an IEP when needed. “I literally was full time doing something related to school from 8 in the morning to 4 or 5 in the afternoon,” she says. She ultimately became the study skills teacher for her oldest.
As Cherkin describes, for some families remote learning has been an inconvenience. But for many it has been devastating. “It’s the same storm, a different boat,” she says.
Parents are also responding to this impossible task by supporting one another. Kuo helped her son’s friends with math in the spring, while Erin shared daily assignment schedules with parents who work full time and weren’t able to keep track on Schoology, the online learning management system used by many local districts, including SPS.
And perhaps this is the most important thing we can all do as parents this fall: Give ourselves – and each other – a break.
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