As Newark moves to virtual learning, special education is an especially ‘heavy lift’

While the transition to remote learning has been a challenge for many families, it may be especially difficult for families of students with special needs in Newark, a district that has sometimes struggled to provide adequate services for them.

For the first time, most students are being educated online instead of in person due to school building closures tied to the coronavirus, and special education services are allowed to go virtual, too, under a new state rule. Remote coursework needs to be modified for students with disabilities, and special education meetings may need to be scheduled during a time of great upheaval. Some Newark parents feel they are being asked to meet their children’s educational needs in a way they haven’t before. 

Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, acknowledged it’s a “heavy lift” for a district the size of Newark — where more than 6,000 students out of 36,000 require special education — to make this relatively rapid switch to virtual learning. But it’s a lift the district must make to comply with federal and state laws for the foreseeable future, as schools remain closed for several more weeks, if not months.

“It takes a while to get these things in place, especially when you have as many students as Newark does,” Autin said. “It’s different when you are trying to do virtual learning for students who are low income, don’t have access to the Internet, and don’t speak English. Challenges are greater for districts like Newark.”

🔗What the law requires

Even though students are now learning at home, students with special needs are still entitled to all of the services they would usually receive.

This week, state lawmakers passed a law requiring districts to provide special education students with the same virtual learning opportunities during a public health emergency as general education students “to the extent appropriate and practicable,” and the state board of education approved the delivery of services like speech and occupational therapy through video conferencing or phone calls two weeks ago. But some parents say their children are still not receiving them. 

Federal law also requires individualized education program, or IEP, meetings for all students with disabilities that experience a change in placement. Since students have been learning at home for a month now, some haven’t received services for more than 10 days — a situation that constitutes a change in placement that requires an IEP meeting. Autin says some parents aren’t being offered the meetings and don’t realize that they’re still entitled to them, even while schools are operating virtually.

“You can’t change their placement without an IEP meeting,” she said. “The U.S. Department of Education made it clear a week ago that virtual IEP meetings should be held now, even if not in person.” 

Special education lawyer John Rue said requirements for what schools should be providing to students with special needs have not changed, and the most important thing is that students should still be receiving services virtually. 

“There’s no fundamental change to the law … but there will be some bumps in the road,” he said. “We’re in a public health crisis, and districts don’t have an endless supply of resources.”

Parents’ experience with IEPs seem to differ from school to school. Kanileah Anderson attended an IEP meeting for her daughter, who attends Central High School, by phone on March 30. Besides having to make time in her work day for it, she said everything proceeded normally.

But board of education member Shayvonne Anderson, whose son attends a charter school and has a mood disorder, said while she knows she’s still entitled to an IEP meeting, “it’s going to be a little more challenging right now,” so she’s planning to wait until schools are open again to request one.

🔗What remote learning looks like

At-home coursework and teacher interaction for special education students seems to also vary depending on where children go to school. Some parents report interacting with their child’s teacher everyday, while others say they feel they’ve been left to educate their child on their own.

District and charter schools in Newark largely relied on paper packets during the first few weeks of at-home learning, and teachers were instructed to make modifications to the packet work for students with disabilities. 

While some parents did receive packets with changes made to accommodate their child’s disability, others did not. McKinley Elementary School parent Jainette Tubens said her son was given a “regular package, not one with what he knows.”

“I can’t really help,” she said. “I try, but it’s frustrating for him and myself.”

Now with work moving mostly online, parents are now figuring out what allowances will be made in remote coursework for students with disabilities. 

Iris Pinkney’s youngest son, North Star Academy charter school 3rd grader Josiah Tomlin, is allowed extra time on his work because of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. His school is using a combination of packet work and online learning — to complete the packet, he has to go online and watch lessons. Though his work is due on Thursday at noon each week, Pinkney said her son’s teachers allow him to turn in his work by Monday, and if he needs extra time, she said they accommodate him.

Nina Page has also had a positive experience with her son’s teacher. Page, whose son Kristopher has autism and is an 8th-grader at Ivy Hill, said Zainab McDowell, her son’s teacher, has reached out to her everyday, sending vocabulary words and math work. 

McDowell said teachers at her school have been encouraged to check in regularly with their students’ families, but owes the easy communication between herself and her students’ parents to a “good rapport with them.”

Some parents don’t have that relationship, however: Newark Special Education Parent Advocacy Council leader Saafir Jenkins said parents who have reached out to him have mostly complained that their children’s teachers are not interacting with them or their students at all.

“That’s a problem,” he said. “It’s already traumatic enough of a situation. For students to not have any interaction whatsoever … it makes matters worse.” 

At a webinar hosted two weeks ago by Newark’s Abbott Leadership Institute, Superintendent Roger León said increasing parent engagement during this time is a priority, and that the district is aware that students with special needs in particular continue to need counseling services and other equipment. He recommended parents speak to their child’s case manager and teacher about their concerns, so the district can continue “to meet all needs in that IEP.” (Newark school officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

🔗What challenges lie ahead

Certain disabilities are proving harder to serve remotely, like ADHD, or students who need to have occupational or physical therapy, which are harder to provide effectively over video conferencing. One way is to tell parents what exercises to complete with their children, but that puts more responsibility on parents who may be unprepared and also juggling their careers and health concerns.

“Parents are being expected to be instructors without getting support and information they need,” Autin said. “They’re kind of being told, ‘This is what your child needs to do,’ without getting a teacher to provide some virtual learning.”

Jenkins also said he’s spoken to parents whose children still don’t have the technology they need to complete school work. Newark schools distributed laptops to students a few weeks ago, but he said some parents are only now realizing their family’s need. Others are struggling to navigate the programs teachers are using.

“There’s little support by way of technology for parents that have not used Google Classroom before,” he said. 

With no end in sight, there are still a number of challenges that must be addressed for distance learning for students with disabilities to be sustainable, though Autin said the situation in Newark requires a little more patience than others. 

Shayvonne Anderson, the school board member, stressed that this is a time of learning for both parents and teachers, and that there’s frustration on both ends. She said that overall, it’s important to recognize that this is an unprecedented time that Newarkers are all working through together. 

“The kinks are not worked out yet. This has never happened before,” she said. “I get it — everybody’s frustrated. So it’s all about working together instead of working against one another.”