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School From Home Has Extra Challenges For Kids With Special Needs

Like parents around the country, Michelle Haffer never imagined having to become her child’s full-time teacher. But Haffer’s daughter is out of school and mostly stuck in the house.

And her daughter, Maddy, isn’t loving it.

“Well, she’s been struggling. It’s mostly the social distancing, in that nothing is open,” Haffer said.

Maddy, 17, has a severe type of autism. She loves to go places: museums, movies, out to dinner, even just run errands.

But so many of those places are closed. 

Normally, Maddy, who is nonverbal, attends Great Circle, a private school for children with behavioral and developmental needs in suburban St. Louis. It’s closed until at least late April, along with schools throughout the region, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Like other schools, Great Circle is supplying lessons and assignments over the internet. But distance learning has added challenges for children with special needs. No longer available are one-on-one assistance and trained experts to modify a lesson. 

“Some kids can do distance learning through the internet. That would not work with her,” Haffer said.

Maddy’s formal education plan mandates that she receive occupational, speech and music therapy every day.

“She's missing all of those things, which I am definitely not trained to do,” said Haffer, who’s a librarian.

Maddy Haffer, 17, works on a school worksheet with her mom. Maddy has autism and is out of school. But re-creating a special education classroom at home is difficult.

On a nice day last week, Haffer took Maddy to Kirkwood Park and found a picnic table. She wiped everything down, then pulled out worksheets from school. Normally, Haffer said, Maddy’s attention span is about 10 minutes. But today, the sunshine seemed to give her added energy, allowing her to focus for 20 minutes.

“She was just thrilled to be somewhere other than home,” Haffer said, “and so I took advantage of that and got her to do some work.”

Math and writing lessons Haffer can handle. The specialized therapies and other services Great Circle provides are harder to re-create.

“We're trying to do the best we can, but I am very, very worried about regression,” Haffer said, using the educational term for essentially losing hard-fought ground on learning and behavioral improvements. 

“I imagine that there will be learning that has been lost because of the situation we're in,” said Monica Jefferson, a teachers union official who represents special education teachers in St. Louis County through the Missouri National Education Association.

Special education teachers are reaching out to families to check on and offer advice, as well as supply additional lesson materials. Jefferson said limited access to online resources or limitations in equipment at home will make it hard for low-income families to re-create therapy and school settings. 

“When we all get back, we will have a lot to do,” Jefferson said.

Mann Elementary School on Juniata Street on March 19. All schools in the region closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under education law, children with special needs are entitled to the exact same level of instruction as other students. The U.S. Education Department has waived some of those requirements during the pandemic. The Special School District, which provides special education to public school students in St. Louis County, said it will conduct required planning and progress meetings with families remotely.

School leaders have signaled they’ll work to make up lost ground for students when classes resume, which may not be until August.

“You’re just not going to get it done,” said Larry Altman, a retired disability education attorney who spent a decade with Kansas City Public Schools. 

He said that despite educators’ best efforts, there will be too much to do after five-plus months out of the classroom.

Altman offers this advice to parents: Be proactive.

“I would monitor my child as closely as I can to see where they're regressing, if there are any regressions and alert the school,” he said.

Haffer, Maddy’s mom, said it’s also good for parents of children with special needs to reach out to each other, for advice and empathy. And she’s tracking the weather, hoping for more nice days for her and Maddy to go out and enjoy.

KCUR's Elle Moxley contributed to this story

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

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