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Parents worry pandemic will leave students with special needs behind

Michelle Russell, left, and Stacey Dickinson, center, hold signs supporting special needs children during a demonstration at the Gwinnett Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 27.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Michelle Russell, left, and Stacey Dickinson, center, hold signs supporting special needs children during a demonstration at the Gwinnett Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 27. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, the AJC misrepresented Niya Jones’ position on in-person education. Jones said education officials should consider the health of the district’s teachers and she supports virtual learning. Also, quotes in the story were incorrectly attributed to Jones.

Gwinnett County’s Niya Jones researched the best back-to-school plan for her four children. She chose online learning, after consulting with her husband, who’s deployed in the military.

With one of her children being gifted, Jones said she understands the desire and demand by parents to have all services provided to students, including individualized education plans (IEPs) and disability plans (504s). 

While some parents are protesting for in-person education, Jones does not believe that face-to-face instruction is more important than teachers’ health and welfare.

She just wants to know what will be done for students who need extra help.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently interviewed several Gwinnett school officials about special education. They offered a list of plans for fall, but did not specify a timeline or say when parents will be involved in discussions.

About 11% of Gwinnett students have individualized education plans, known as IEPs, or qualify for a 504 plan for a child with a disability who may not need special instruction, according to the district.

A student who needs a wheelchair to get around may need a 504. An IEP is for a child who needs special accommodations for learning. A student who has developmental delay may need extra time to complete a test or an assignment.

Gwinnett administrators said they have modified special education lessons to fit with digital learning. But not everything will replicate in the new mode, said Patrick Kane, executive director of special education and psychological services.

He compared it to virtual appointments with a chiropractor.

“If they can’t physically work on you, they can give you exercises or other things to do on your own that can get as close to what they can do in the office,” he said.

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Clay Hunter, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instructional support, says that in addition to teachers, school staff has been preparing to help train parents to co-teach or at least be aware of expectations. The staff members include parent instructional coordinators, outreach liaisons and mentors.

“Our goal is to make sure that just like [live] instruction is available for students, there will be an opportunity for parents to get [live] instruction as well,” said Hunter. “We want to empower parents as much as we empower teachers.”

Joanne Bayouk is still hoping school officials make changes for students with special needs and allow in-person classes.

“I think I pretty much stay on top of things,” she said. “But I’ve been given no information about how the district plans to make this year different than last year.”

Like Jones, she also has four children and one has an IEP.

“His main issue is inattentiveness,” said Bayouk. “Digital didn’t work for him because he needs additional engagement. In the traditional class he had a co-teacher.”

Technology exists so students can sign on to in-person classes or watch a recorded version of that same lecture or session, said Jonathan Patterson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional support.

This is especially important for special education students, he said.

“We’ve worked very hard on access by making sure these students in particular have internet connections and devices so they can be engaged in the learning.”

At the July business meeting, the board of education approved $3.8 million to purchase Wi-Fi hot spots and $450,000 for additional Chromebooks for students.

In the past, parents were able to attend brown bag lunch sessions or come to the school and get face-to-face help when they had questions. Now there will be scheduled online sessions that will be recorded so parents can view them at their leisure, district officials said.

And for those that prefer to work with texts, step-by-step manuals will be available.

The officials stressed that parent feedback will be critical as classes move forward.

“Once school is underway, we plan to conduct evaluations in person,” said Patterson. “We have to take precautions for safe, clean rooms for the student and examiner.”