Updated at 9:31 a.m. ET
With school closed, Marla Murasko begins her morning getting her 14-year-old son, Jacob, dressed and ready for the day. They have a daily check-in: How are you doing? How are you feeling? Next, they consult the colorful, hourly schedule she has pinned on the fridge.
Jacob, who has Down syndrome, loves routine. So this daily routine is important. Schools in Hopkinton, Mass., are closed until May 4th, so Jacob's morning academic lesson — which according to the schedule starts at 9 a.m. — has been temporarily moved to the basement.
But there's been one big hiccup to all this: What, exactly, to learn during these at-home sessions? Some of Jacob's teachers have sent packets home — one, for a science class, includes a video and a worksheet on wolves — but teachers haven't included any of the modifications, or "accommodations" he normally gets that are designed to adapt the lessons to his learning style. Normally, Jacob is in a general education classroom, with special help. In some subjects, like reading and math, he works with different teachers and sometimes does different lessons.
"It has been very frustrating for us," says Murasko, "he can't look at a five-page worksheet and learn. He needs it very simplified in order for him to learn it. If there's no accommodations or modifications for him, he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him." So Murasko, who insists she is not and has never been a teacher, has had to get creative. She found some worksheets online that help break down readings into Who, What, Where, When and Why? She says they're helping.
"I'll be honest with you, I've approached my day at this point with trying to figure out the positives," she says, "because I can't keep staying in this negative arena of when are they going to provide me something?"
As the vast majority of schools in the U.S. have transitioned from the classroom to the computer — teachers and administrators have struggled to offer learning to special needs students. The Hopkinton school district, where Jacob attends, did not respond to requests for comment on how it's handling the needs of students in special education.
Some districts have plowed ahead with holding one-on-one lessons over software like Zoom and virtual meetings to discuss the individualized education plans — known as IEPs — that are required for students in special education. Others have put all learning on a pause, as they figure out how to use distance learning to serve all students — not just those with disabilities but also those who don't have computers or high-speed internet.
As we've reported, schools have had to move online within a very short time frame, often without extra resources and very little training.
An estimated 14% of public school students receive special education services in the U.S. The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act ensures that those children have a right to a free, appropriate public education whenever and wherever schools are operating.
"Our district overall is implementing Google Classroom," explains Ann Hiebert, a special education teacher for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in the suburbs of St. Louis, "but that doesn't work well for my students, since I have students with more significant needs."
Her students have intellectual disabilities, including autism. Many are non-verbal, and some struggle with writing and typing and can't use technology independently.
"So all of these things that are out there aren't really going to be the best option for my kids," Hiebert says. She has been sending emails with videos of her classes' morning routine — they include familiar songs and pictures of their classroom calendar. "Routine is very important to my students," she says. She sent packets home for students, but she's "still trying to figure out ways that I can have meaningful content for them."
An urging to stay flexible
On Saturday, the U.S. Education Department announced it was giving schools flexibility in interpreting IDEA, saying that complying with the law, "should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction."
Jeanne Allen, who founded the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group that promotes school choice, said she was relieved to get the guidance, as there's been, "confusion about what schools, school districts and educators were permitted to do." She acknowledges that there are concerns about equity, but argues that schools should be looking to ed tech innovators and seeking creative solutions, rather than putting a hold on all learning.
"The law does not say if you don't educate every single person today in real time, you're going to get penalized," she maintains, "You don't stop schools and leaders from educating students to find the perfect solution."
A new federal relief package, which President Trump signed into law on Friday, offers Education Secretary Betsy DeVos the opportunity to go one step further: She now has 30 days to seek waivers for additional provisions of IDEA in order to provide schools with "limited flexibility."
This provision makes disability advocates nervous. "We're talking about waiving a civil right for our most vulnerable people in our society, children who don't vote, who have no voice, who are relying on their parents to advocate for them," says Stephanie Langer, a Florida civil rights attorney who focuses on education and disability.
She worries that if the federal government lets states and districts off the hook for providing accommodations for students with disabilities, schools and teachers won't even try. "If they know they won't be held accountable at the back end, they simply will not try," Langer maintains. "Having the requirements in place requires schools to do something rather than nothing, even if it's not perfect."
In the meantime, it's really up to parents.
For the first few days of virtual learning, Ann Hiebert says she was focused on how to adapt lessons for her students, but in recent days she has shifted her thinking. Now, she says, "I'm trying to be more of a resource to parents." She's planning on making videos — with help from her own son, who is also home from school — to demonstrate to parents how she works with students in class, so parents can model her movements.
"Parents have now become the teacher, the therapist, the advocate. They are everybody all in one," says Catherine Whitcher, who works with both families and school districts to craft IEPs. "The teachers have really started to flip their thinking of, 'How can I support the parents and what they're doing during this time?' "
Whitcher says parents are stressed out because they're worried their special-needs child isn't going to make academic progress at home, but she argues that's not where the focus should be for families. "Right now, we need to stabilize as human beings inside of our homes. It's about life skills. It's about community. It's about connection."
She says the time spent over video chat, or at home, is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to actually get to know the students in the context of their family.
Lessons from a virtual school
There are schools with extensive experience teaching online, including a number of virtual charter schools. "All of our instruction has always been delivered online," says Jamie Desrochers, the director of special education at the PA Distance Learning Charter School in Pennsylvania. "Our special ed teachers, pretty much everything that they can do in a brick and mortar school, we can do on a cyber." The only services they normally do in-person are things like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy, but they have partnerships with companies like PresenceLearning that offer these services over video chat, and are leaning on them even more now.
When everything is through a computer, Desrochers says, teachers "have to be that much more animated to get the kids' attention." Sometimes teachers wear different silly hats and they ask lots of questions about the students' living environment. "The kids love to show off their pet," she says. "Giving the students an opportunity to do a show-and-tell online gets them engaged and builds that relationship."
For special education teachers adapting to a new virtual reality, Desrochers suggests making sure lessons connect to real life. And she urges teachers and parents to lean into the tools and objects students have in the home.
For example, if you'd use blocks for counting in the classroom, use something like pasta. For a lesson about surface area, have students count how many tiles are in the kitchen, or how many steps it takes to get from one side of the room to the other. And for parents, she adds, don't forget about household chores: "Cooking with your kids, is a great way to teach math."
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As the vast majority of schools in the U.S. move from the classroom to the computer, teachers and administrators have struggled to offer learning to special needs students. Schools are required to do so by federal law, which protects students with disabilities. But the coronavirus relief package paves the way for the Education Department to give states some leeway. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been talking to parents and teachers who are navigating an uncertain new reality.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: With school closed, every morning this week has begun the same way, with Marla Murasko (ph) getting her 14-year-old son Jacob dressed and ready for the day.
JACOB: I did the bed, Mommy.
MARLA MURASKO: You did your bed, honey? Thank you.
JACOB: I love you.
MURASKO: Love you, too.
NADWORNY: Next they head down to look at the colorful hour-by-hour schedule taped to the front of the fridge.
MURASKO: What's at 9 o'clock? Right here.
MURASKO: Oh, writing, OK.
NADWORNY: Jacob, who has Down syndrome, loves routine.
MURASKO: Are you excited about your day?
JACOB: Yes, we are.
MURASKO: Because Jacob's school outside Boston is closed until April 6, Jacob starts his lessons at 9 a.m., according to his schedule, down in the basement. And there's just one kind of big hiccup. Even though some of his teachers sent home packets to work on, there's no accommodations or modifications for him, so he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him.
NADWORNY: Jacob is in general education, but he has special help. In certain subjects like reading, he works with a different teacher, separate from the class.
MURASKO: It has been very frustrating for us. I mean, he can't look at a five-page worksheet and learn.
NADWORNY: Jacob needs things to be simplified, so Murasko found some worksheets online that helped break his readings down.
MURASKO: I have approached my day at this point with trying to figure out the positives, to be honest with you, because I can't keep staying in this negative arena of, when are they going to provide me something? So I've just been doing my own stuff.
NADWORNY: Across the country, school districts are struggling to figure out how to give students with special needs an appropriate education, now that they're closed due to coronavirus. They are legally obligated to do that under the Individuals with Disability Education Act or IDEA. But it's a big challenge on such a short time period.
ANN HIEBERT: Our district overall is implementing Google Classroom.
NADWORNY: Ann Hiebert is a special education teacher for the Ferguson-Florissant School District in the suburbs of St. Louis.
HIEBERT: But that doesn't work well for my students, since I have students with more significant needs.
NADWORNY: Her students have intellectual disabilities, including autism. Many of them are non-verbal, and some can't use technology independently. So Hiebert has been sending emails with videos of familiar songs, plus some packets home for students. But that's about it.
HIEBERT: You know, it's a gray area for everyone right now. I think everyone, administration included, is figuring this out as we go along.
NADWORNY: In an acknowledgment of the constraints districts are facing, the Education Department offered new flexibility, urging schools to not let the federal law get in the way of distance learning. Congress's relief package gives Secretary DeVos 30 days to waive additional parts of IDEA in order to provide schools with, quote, "limited flexibility." Some disability advocates say that flexibility makes them nervous.
STEPHANIE LANGER: We're talking about waiving a civil right for our most vulnerable people in our society, children who don't vote, who have no voice, who are relying on their parents to advocate for them.
NADWORNY: Stephanie Langer is a civil rights attorney with a focus on education. She worries this will let states and districts off the hook for providing accommodations, even if it's later, when students return to the classroom.
LANGER: If they know they won't be held accountable at the back end, they simply will not try. Having the requirements in place requires them to do something rather than nothing.
NADWORNY: There are successful approaches to special ed virtually.
JAMIE DESROCHERS: So pretty much everything that they can do on a brick-and-mortar school, we can do on a cyber.
NADWORNY: Jamie Desrochers is the director of special education at a small online charter school in Pennsylvania. It's all virtual, but using online tools, special education teachers can push into a live classroom or they can create breakout rooms and go one-on-one. If your school doesn't have the online software, she suggests a simple alternative. There is tons of learning potential in regular old household chores.
DESROCHERS: Cooking with your kids, you know, it's a great way to teach math.
NADWORNY: Marla Murasko, who's home with her son Jacob, has made this a big part of their days. Earlier this week, Jacob measured out the oil when they made popcorn.
MURASKO: And now we're going to pour it on. Go ahead. Pour it all over your popcorn, all over.
NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.