Special education amid pandemic poses challenges for Metro Atlanta schools

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

When DeKalb County School District transitioned to virtual learning due to the coronavirus, Philip Woody took a sabbatical to support his special needs son.

Evan Woody, 21, survived a brain injury as a toddler. It left him nonverbal with the mental equivalency of a 3-year-old. His parents, Philip and Lisa, perform his tasks of everyday life, from showering to dressing.

And this year, they took an even more active role with Evan’s education since DeKalb schools have been all virtual. The format has presented challenges for students of all kinds, but particularly those with special needs.

Evan becomes easily distracted with online learning, his parents say. He developed a habit of grunting and waving his arms in apparent frustration as he attends virtual classes at Dunwoody High School.

Philip Woody said Evan’s needs can’t be met with online learning only.

“Everybody needs socialization, typical kids as well, but with this [special needs] community that’s how they learn social skills,” he said.

“That’s how they learn everything,” Lisa Woody added.

About 7 million children, or 14% of public school students nationwide, are legally entitled to accommodations to help them learn under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These children have a variety of disabilities from behavioral, physical or sensory disorders, such as blindness or speech impairment.

Georgia’s school districts are legally obligated to provide the students individualized education plans (IEPs) that are tailored to their needs. There are nearly 70,000 families with special needs students in six metro Atlanta school districts alone.

IEP obligations range from requiring physical adult supervision, supportive instruction from a paraprofessional, or requirements for schools to provide communication devices and tools to support a child with speech difficulties.

All of those services are more difficult in a virtual environment.

Every public school district throughout metro Atlanta serves students with special needs. More than 10% in DeKalb schools have IEPs, state data shows. More than 13% of students in the Cobb County and Gwinnett County school districts have them as well.

Chad Rummel, executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children, said special education teachers have had to create “entirely new strategies” to serve students online and still meet federal requirements for special education students.

But several educators and parents told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it’s difficult for school districts to meet the needs of each diverse IEP in a virtual setting.

Education ‘no easy feat’ amid COVID

The DeKalb school district says it made adjustments to serve special needs students this year, but it will improve with plans to possibly reopen schools in mid-February.

DeKalb superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris said serving special needs students is “one of the impetus for us evolving our plan and trying to get our students back to a face-to-face environment.”

“We have some vulnerable students who need the opportunity to be supported” with in-person learning, Watson-Harris said.

A spokesperson told the AJC that district educators in August participated in training to teach special needs students in a virtual environment.

The district also hosted parent meetings to discuss how to support children in a remote environment.

“It’s been no easy feat, but we have seen both teachers and students rise to the challenge,” Rummel said.

There will “undoubtedly be learning loss across all levels of education,” Rummel said, before adding that teachers and students have performed in “leaps and bounds above” what educators could have imagined last March.

Steve Sabol disagrees.

Sabol’s 10-year-old son Michael is nonverbal with a limited knowledge of sign language. His IEP requires a one-on-one paraprofessional for classes.

The Sabols filled that role because Michael would shut the laptop or run away from the computer otherwise, Steve Sabol said.

“The school is relying on me, his mom, or someone that we brought into school to actually facilitate his learning,” Sabol said of his Kingsley Elementary third-grader.

In a letter to the district this fall, the Sabols wrote that they spent about $4,000 on adult supervision for their son from June to October. The family asked the district to either make an exception to reopen special education classrooms, or pay for Michael’s supervision during class.

The district denied that request.

“Legally speaking, they are actually violating a law in not providing these services to my son,” Sabol said.

Watson-Harris said DeKalb has not violated any IEPs, adding that the district responded to every concerned parent that reached out to the district.

“We’ve been successful with some and then we’ve had to be very creative with other students who might have required physical therapy or things we would normally do in face-to-face environments,” she said.

Other districts struggle as well

Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Seth Coleman said the district is working with families to outline services and supports while the district operates virtually. Students can receive their traditional IEPs once APS resumes face-to-face instruction on Jan. 25, he said.

Until then, Coleman said students with disabilities can get the services outlined in their IEPs through a mix of in-person and remote learning.

Marjorie Richardson worries that APS isn’t properly teaching students with special needs, and is concerned about the impact on her grandchildren.

For instance, Richardson said APS used a “brick-and-mortar” method of teaching online. Those methods were difficult to follow, she said, because her granddaughter has hearing difficulties, and her grandson has dyslexia.

“My grandson has disengaged,” she said. “He said ‘with all of these assignments they give me, I can’t do them.’”

Other districts, such as Fulton County Schools, invested in teletherapy, dual monitor set-ups for visual or hearing impairments, and advanced camera options to improve virtual learning for special needs students.

A district spokesperson said Fulton’s teachers and case managers worked with each family to develop plans to ensure students had access to services and support.

Clayton County Public Schools saw an increase in parent participation in virtual IEP meetings and conference calls during the pandemic, said Trina Smith, director of the district’s Department of Exceptional Students.

Clayton will be the sole online-only district in the area once Atlanta and DeKalb open their doors to willing students later this month.

Parents initially struggled with the access and technology of virtual learning, but Smith said Clayton revised its virtual model to keep students with IEPs engaged, participating, and progressing in class.

“Parents and teachers continue to adjust but one thing is for sure, the feedback shows that teachers are doing amazing work to support our students,” Smith said.

DeKalb school board member Joyce Morley, who has opposed reopening buildings for in-person learning, said DeKalb addressed IEP concerns when the pandemic started. Morley said she opposes reopening at this time due in part to health risks for special needs students.

“Those children will be more prone and more susceptible to catching COVID-19, so I want to make sure that the physical and the mental and the spiritual safety is there,” she said.

DeKalb students in Pre-K, 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 9th grade who opted for in-person learning could possibly begin returning to buildings by mid-February, according to the district’s plan.

Watson-Harris said she was “encouraged” by the creativity of DeKalb’s special education teachers who have used technology to try to mitigate as much as possible “any loss of progress for those students.”

“But we also recognize for many of them that a return to face-to-face will allow us to meet their needs in an even deeper and more meaningful way,” she said.

Special education students by school district:

Gwinnett: 23,562

Cobb: 14,779

DeKalb: 10,105

Fulton: 9,629

Atlanta Public Schools: 6,013

Clayton: 5,592

Source: Georgia Department of Education