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Veronica Coit struggles seeing how her daughter’s education will proceed. Coit, a hairdresser in West Asheville, is the mother of Bella, 13, a student at Valley Springs Middle School. Bella has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. The syndrome leaves Bella with body functions equivalent, in her mother’s estimate, to those of a 1-year old. Bella needs total care.
Bella (Photo: Courtesy of Veronica Coit)
At school, Bella attends Buncombe County School’s Progressive Education Program, designed to serve students with significant physical and cognitive disabilities. There, she works hand-in-hand with a trained instructor who uses pictures and eye-tracking technologies to guide Bella through academic tasks. The school also provides physical and speech therapy.
Coit says Bella loves the program. Yet, like millions of students, Bella can no longer enter her school building. She will spend the next two weeks, and perhaps longer, at home.
“I don’t think she can keep lessons going unless (the district) starts sending people to our homes, which of course is not the answer because it’s also dangerous,” Coit said. “Unfortunately, this is going to be like summer for her.”
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Special ed in a pandemic
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, dictates all students receive equal access to education. What access means differs from student to student based on potential learning disabilities. Students who qualify for Individualized Education Plans, called IEPs, receive differentiated instruction to help them access academic materials. Certain students also qualify for 504 plans, which remove other barriers to education. The legal responsibility to adhere to these plans falls on districts.
“IDEA did not take into account a national crisis like this.”
Gaile Osborne, local special needs education advocate
As schools shift to remote lessons in the face of coronavirus, administrators and teachers must maintain these IEPs and 504s from a distance. Through common virtual platforms like Google Classroom and Canvas, teachers can differentiate instruction by inserting read-alouds, assigning different readings and taped lessons, including written sentence starters, and more. In BCS, Exceptional Children teachers, who serve students with disabilities, will hold office hours, four-hours a day, when students and families can call to ask questions and receive instructional support.
Yet some in the education field say districts will need to be uniquely inventive to address more detailed IEPs and 504s during mandatory remote lessons.
On March 18, Buncombe County School began its Virtual Days curriculum. (Photo: Reviewed.com)
“IDEA did not take into account a national crisis like this,” said Gaile Osborne, a community navigator and parent advocate at FIRST, which connects local individuals with disabilities to resources. “So, this is completely uncharted territory.”
This month, the US Department of Education issued new guidelines on services for students with disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic. The guidelines allow for remote learning to facilitate students’ IEPs during COVID-19-caused closures. Yet, without a trained professional physically present, Osborne fears student needs won’t be met. “I worry that the kids who can’t advocate for themselves might fall through the cracks during this period,” she said.
In the physical absence of school staff, Osborne said parents and guardians will take on a novel role in helping districts chronicle adherence to IEPs and 504s. “Progress towards these goals is falling to parents to document,” Osborne said. “Who else is there working with the kid?
Reshaping the routine
Like Bella Coit, Evelyn Brackett is 13 and attends Valley Springs. With needs less severe than Bella’s, Evelyn attends an inclusion class where her autism and generalized anxiety disorder can be best addressed. Her favorite subject is science, and a 504 plan helps Evelyn master the topic.
Evelyn thrives on consistent routine. Her 504 accommodations – frequent breaks, advanced notice on upcoming tests, and clear communication regarding schedule changes – are monitored by BCS staff.
Evelyn Brackett (Photo: Courtesy of Priscilla Brackett)
At home in South Asheville, Evelyn will have her working parents and an 18-year-old gymnastics teammate to help her adjust to a less structured day. Neither her parents nor the teammate are trained in Exceptional Children instruction.
Evelyn’s mother Priscilla is a family support partner at Youth Villages, a non-profit serving low-income families. She works from home but will have her attention steered away from Evelyn’s assignments.
“She is used to the structure of school and how the day flows,” Priscilla said of Evelyn. “I have serious concerns how it’s going to work out.”
Beyond concerns for her daughter, Priscilla worries for parents who don’t work from home and don’t have child care options. “I have the tools and resources to make sure my daughter will be ok,” she said. “So many families do not.”
Brian Gordon is the education and social issues reporter for The Asheville Citizen Times. He can be reached at [email protected], at 828-232-5851, or on Twitter at @briansamuel92.
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