‘I don’t have a clue what to do’: What Indiana’s coronavirus school closures mean for special education

Katie Vescelus has resigned herself to the idea that, with schools closed statewide in response to the coronavirus outbreak, her son, Matthias, will likely fall behind his fifth-grade peers. For Matthias, who is blind, working remotely means relying on technology his parents aren’t very familiar with and losing some critical real-time help from his teacher.

Schools in Indiana are closed until at least May 1, and campuses may shut down through the end of the school year amid the global pandemic. While some schools could cancel classes altogether, the push toward teaching students remotely leaves educators trying to figure out how to best serve students from afar.

School closures place a burden on families and raise concerns for all students’ academic progress. But the closure creates a particularly difficult challenge for the more than 173,000 students in Indiana who receive special education services, ranging from extra time on exams to one-on-one classroom aides.

For some of these students, closures will mean missing out on necessary physical, behavioral, or occupational therapies that are typically provided in-person.

Indiana has instructed schools to continue providing special education services. But it’s unclear if a new stimulus bill being negotiated by federal lawmakers will allow states and districts to be able to request waivers that would loosen some of the restrictions on meeting students’ federally mandated special education plans while schools are closed.

On Saturday, The U.S. Department of Education clarified in a fact sheet that, while schools will be given flexibility in how services are delivered, they are still expected to continue to comply with special education laws.

“Nothing issued by this department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in an accompanying statement. “We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear.”

In Indiana districts offering online learning, teachers are video conferencing with their students to help them through lessons, and some are giving students who need it extra time on assignments. Physical therapists are sending parents directions for how to continue exercises at home. Some teachers said they are dropping off materials at students’ homes.

Days before Noblesville Community Schools closed, Vescelus said one of Matthias’ teachers, who works with blind students, dropped off a new version of the specialized iPad he uses. The device allows Matthias to type and read in Braille, but his teacher or parent can look at the screen to see what he’s writing or reading in plain English. It makes remote learning possible for her son, Vescelus said.

Many special education students struggle with a sudden change to their schedule. It can trigger negative behaviors, educators said. And staying home also means they will miss out on the social aspect of schools, which they said can offer valuable skills.

“I’m trying my best at keeping the structure, but I don’t have a clue what to do,” said Amy Stempkowski, whose daughter has a severe speech disorder. “She gets so much support that I don’t know what to be doing to get her that support.”

Her daughter is in third grade at Butler University Laboratory School 55, where she typically receives speech and occupational therapy and gets one-on-one help throughout the day. Indianapolis Public Schools sent parents some general guidance, including worksheets that weren’t tailored to specific classes, but didn’t provide remote learning last week and is now on spring break for two weeks. Stempkowski said she hopes they release a plan for students soon.

School psychologist Diane Keller said she is still working to finish 15 evaluations for IPS within the 50-day deadline. But she faces a significant hurdle because parts of her test, including those that rely on seeing how a student interacts with their surroundings, can’t effectively be completed remotely.

Her evaluations are used to determine what services students need. And it’s hard to evaluate functional behavior when students are at home rather than a busy school, she said.

“It’s very hard to put out something that is mediocre because that’s not our role,” Keller said. “Our role is to make a difference.”

Angie Balsley, executive director of Earlywood Educational Services, said some schools in the six districts her education cooperative serves had just 24-hours notice before doors shut. Balsly, who is also president-elect of Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education, is talking with education directors state- and nationwide to come up with solutions for their students, but recognizes that none will be ideal.

“As far as not being able to be face-to-face with your kids, that will never be easier,” she said. “The loss of instruction is heartbreaking but we have to keep that priority in front of us: This is a war on coronavirus and we are all in. We all have a part to play.”

For Vescelus that means doing her best to keep Matthias on track. But it also means Matthais will likely enter sixth grade behind where he would have been without closures. He will also miss visits to his new middle school that had been planned so he could learn how to navigate the unfamiliar building.

Vescelus said there’s a lot of anxiety among parents of students with disabilities who are facing stepping into the role of special education teacher. She’s tried that, she said, and it created a stressful environment. There are some lessons she can’t help with, such as teaching basic algebra in Braille.

Instead, she makes sure Matthias gets breaks throughout the day and messages his teachers if he has a question.

“I don’t feel that pressure,” Vescelus said. “If I can’t help him, I can’t help him and it’s OK. His life is not going to be a failure if we miss a couple of lessons over the next couple of months.”

She added, “Maybe the learning right now of algebra isn’t as robust as it would have been in the classroom. But this allows him to learn some pretty significant problem solving.”

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