What more than 50 special education parents in Chicago told us about schooling this fall

A student with disabilities at HeartShare Taranto preschool in Brooklyn receives occupational therapy.

Caught in the middle of the debate about whether Chicago should reopen schools are special education students, who would be among the first to return to school buildings should the city proceed with a phased-in reopening plan later this fall.  

Chicago committed to improving the quality of education for students with disabilities when school restarted. Has that been the case? A Chalkbeat Chicago survey of about 50 families about remote learning shows that experiences are mixed. Families appeared divided on the topic of reopening schools, but several parents said they wanted to be given the choice because some specialty services haven’t been delivered remotely.

During the spring, students received little to no services for the remainder of the school year after campuses closed. Those who were able to receive vital services, such as speech-language pathology, resumed sessions in May. Often, the sessions were cut short. During class, parents were expected to act as special education assistants. Many were overwhelmed with the work. Many parents saw their children regress. 

Tonia Nelson, a mother of a child with dyslexia, summarized a few key issues that many parents noted in their survey responses: the amount of parental involvement required, the gaps in transitioning services from the classroom to online, and disruptions.

“Remote brings about a whole new layer of issues. For example, with dyslexia the difficulty can arise trying to match letters/words with sounds. Imagine having to hear about music notes over a computer with other kids also talking — it is impossible for (my child) to match sound to letter to symbol,” she said.

Here are five more takeaways from the responses we received. Note that Chalkbeat granted anonymity to some parents who requested it because of privacy concerns. These responses have been lightly edited for clarity.  

Some parents said their remote experience was better.

“I’ve already been contacted by teachers to schedule/arrange his sessions via Google Meet. My only concern is who will remind my child to log onto the session. I work from home and may not always be able to remind him for every session.”
— Erinn Greetis, whose 9-year-old son receives services for speech, social work, and severe food allergies/asthma.

“It’s better than spring. Instructions for assignments are clearer. More frequent contact with staff. I do think they need to tell students to stop and take a break. Classes are too long to sit in front of a screen everyday.” — Kalaveeta Mitchell, mother of two teenagers with autism.

“It’s better than spring. It seems like we are not getting our minutes (the required number of minutes of services spelled out in a student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP).”
— anonymous

More said it was the same or worse as the spring.

“For our diverse learner, it’s a disaster. He can’t attend to the screen or manage the technology, and his reading/spelling abilities make it impossible to use the chat feature. The higher-ups in CPS didn’t put enough thought into how to serve these kids.”
— Kathy Romanski, mother of a 7-year-old 

“We pulled our kindergartner who has hearing loss. He does not get special services, but we had hoped to get 504 accommodations. In particular, we wanted the school to let us do direct instruction with him at home (hearing is harder for him than for other kids online) but they were not willing to do it. We pulled him to homeschool. We need a more flexible plan from CPS that doesn’t insist a kindergartner with hearing loss spend three synchronous hours a day learning online.”
— Brady Jones, parent of a kindergartner.

Parents described unmet needs.

We need more (special education classroom assistant) support. We need more small break out groups. We need HELP. We need less logins, screen time, confusing apps etc.”
— Laurie Viets, mother of three with special needs. 

“There is no time for special education staff to work 1:1 with students. (My child’s) aide doesn’t interact — is just sitting on the meet. I have to be my child’s 1:1 aide. I had to quit my job as I am a solo parent ” — Christine Palmieri, parent of a 12-year-old with autism.

“A computer that is capable of working with Google Meet. The computer lags so badly that we often cannot unmute it in time for my son to participate. My son is unable to mute/unmute himself using the trackpad.”
— Courtney Aviles, parent of an elementary-age student with speech and fine motor delays.  

(Our speech language pathologist) is on maternity leave and they don’t have a replacement.”
— Heather Hesiak, one elementary-age child.

Caregivers cut back on hours or left jobs because of the demands of remote learning.

“My kid just needs to go back to school. I’m sitting with him because my work is flexible, but I did cut my hours significantly to be his aide. He needs someone who understands when he needs support and when he needs to be left alone. Also he really just needs to be social. He needs to interact with other kids!”
— Nancy Witt, parent of one on the autism spectrum.

“It is just my husband and me. We have no help/family. We are working opposite shifts & get little sleep.” — Deidra Kenar, parent of three elementary-age children with special needs.

“We can not afford the care needed so I had to stop working.” Parent of a second grader who wished to remain anonymous. 

“(This is) hard for single parents. I’m incredibly lucky I can hire someone to help. I’m not sure what other single parents are doing, or what I will do if my support person quits.”
— Julie Parson Nesbitt, parent of a 15-year-old.

“It varies day by day. Sometimes he is at home with me while I am trying to work or with my husband or mother in law.  An attempt to find childcare has been met with ‘We are not sure we can meet your child’s needs’ or it has been $200 to $300 per week.  Another daycare closed for two weeks due to a COVID-19 positive case.”
— Jennifer Boers, mother of a high schooler.

Families were divided about reopening schools.

“Many of these children need in-person learning for social emotional learning and interaction which just can’t happen on the computer” — Chrissy Chuchro, parent of an elementary-age child with autism.

“Every kid is different, even with special needs. This is why they should at minimum be given the option to go back (to in-person learning). Some are not able to because the families are concerned about their immune systems, but others are able to. The choice should be given and not made for them.”
— Jeannie Liu, parent of a high school student with Down syndrome. 

“This isn’t a one size fits all, yet you’ve made it that way. Virtual learning is not good for our kids’ mental health at all. It’s a living nightmare.”

Parent who wished to remain anonymous.

“His teacher is encouraging brain and body breaks and is flexible when he is struggling while overstimulated. She is working on small group breakouts, but technology has proved a difficult hurdle. Once that is in place he will also have an executive functioning small group. We can be flexible with that all on the horizon. Virtual is difficult, but we have found some strengths.”
— Parent who wished to remain anonymous.

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