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Education

As Colorado kids with disabilities study remotely, some are lacking critical support services

Students with special needs are continuing coursework online. But for some needing other services, like occupational therapy, they’ve been out of luck.

Ten-year-old Shepsira Turner, left, works on an iPad-based school lesson with her mother Deronn Turner, right, at home in Denver on April 15, 2020. The coronavirus-mandated closure of school means Deronn has taken over special education duties for Shepsira, who has Down syndrome, as well as the educations of her older children (ages 15, 18 and 20) who are also now learning from home. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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With all four of her children home, Deronn Turner’s house is filled with writing assignments, art projects, books, flashcards and learning devices.

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Her children are what she calls “creative crazies.” Two are enrolled at Denver School of the Arts and the oldest is a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“My work is to keep people’s feet on the ground,” Turner said.

Another one of her leading jobs: teacher, especially for her youngest child, Shepsira, who has Down syndrome.

Now that they’re all studying at home, Turner is by her 10-year-old daughter’s side most of each day. Turner tries to reinforce the skills she’d learned in her fourth-grade class at Cole Arts and Science Academy, like writing her name and reading books. But she says she’s worried. When children with neurological or intellectual delays lose skills, they have to work really hard to relearn them, said Turner, who before she had kids worked for at least a decade with adults and children with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she said. “That’s for sure.”

Deronn Turner and her 10-year-old daughter Shepsira Turner share a laugh on April 15, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Families across Colorado are struggling to find a new rhythm as their children transition to remote learning while schools are closed due to the new coronavirus. But those who have a child with special needs face an additional challenge of keeping their kid on track even though they don’t have direct access to services, like occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. Nearly 94,250 students with disabilities attend Colorado schools this year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. Parents are doing what they can, but school districts could be on the hook for compensatory services later to make up for what students with disabilities missed when they were learning online.

The approaches some districts are taking to working with students who have disabilities aren’t all that different from the way they’re serving students in general. Neither are the expectations set for students with disabilities as schools and educators shift academic goals to align with what is possible in a remote setting — and set aside what isn’t possible.

Deronn Turner laughs as her 10-year-old daughter Shepsira Turner hides from a photographer’s camera while working on school work at home in Denver on April 15, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In some scenarios, it’s not feasible to deliver a particular service to a student in a meaningful way right now, said Paul Foster, executive director of the Exceptional Student Services unit at CDE. That service may have to be pushed to a point in the future and parents may have to be drawn into a conversation about how to make up for those missed services.

In making these decisions, Foster said it’s important to take a kid-by-kid approach and consult a student’s plan under the Individualized Education Program. An IEP — an education plan essentially — is a customized document for a student with a disability that guides their academics and establishes goals for their learning. IEPs are developed through a collaborative process with parents, teachers, school staff and, in many cases, the student.

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Getting creative with learning at home 

Ed Quayle and his wife, Christine, are having a hard time figuring out how to integrate specialized services for their 13-year-old son, Brian, who has cerebral palsy, into his school days. Those services include occupational therapy, physical therapy, vision therapy and speech therapy, which he would normally get at Skinner Middle School in Denver, where he is a seventh grader. 

A contingency plan developed for Brian directs therapists from school to make virtual check-ins with the family each week. Some of his therapies have been put on hold, but the family also is exploring the possibility of doing some of the therapies at home, for example doing exercises with guidance from his physical therapist.

Coordinating all the components that go into Brian’s care is overwhelming, said Christine, who is a registered nurse. It’s also been difficult juggling all the demands of his different classes and trying to figure out how to relay course content to Brian.

Ed, a police detective, said Brian’s teachers have tried to be available and Brian’s principal has also called to ensure they have the resources they need like computers and access to his learning accounts. But the Quayles are taking the lead on their son’s education. 

Ed considers his remote instruction role as a crossover between a teacher and a paraprofessional. He coaches and mentors his son and tries to structure ways for him to interact with the material, getting creative when necessary with creating multiple choice questions and using letters on a magnetic board.

Ten-year-old Shepsira Turner, left, giggles with her mother Deronn Turner, right, while working on school assignments at home in Denver on April 15, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brian’s paraprofessional helps by contacting them every morning, often twice a day, and helping them prioritizing their approach to his courses. Most days, Brian spends two to three hours on his studies each day, taking breaks when he tires.

Brian is engaged in his school work, Ed said, some days more so than others.

Remote learning has played out better than he thought it would, though Ed said his son is missing the classroom and time with his peers. “He gets a lot of motivation from that.”

In Turner’s home, Shepsira, who is a fourth grader at Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver, checks in with her teacher online three times a day. She uses programs to practice tracing her letters, spelling words and reviewing words to help her with reading.

Turner has scaled back her expectations for the rest of her daughter’s school year. The biggest priority now, she said, is Shepsira’s happiness and preparing to transition to middle school after next year.

Turner is trying to be patient but is frustrated with Denver Public Schools, which from her vantage point doesn’t have a process in place to help special education teachers serve their students during remote learning. Teachers are doing the best they can with the little training they’ve received, she said, but many are figuring it out as they go. That doesn’t jibe with students who have special needs, who fare best with a plan and a routine in place, Turner said.

Is her daughter getting an effective education while engaged in remote learning?

“As best as can be for right now,” Turner said,  “because we’re in kind of a challenging time.”

Is online learning effective for students with disabilities?

Students with disabilities continue to be entitled to a free and appropriate public education, even in an environment that is prioritizing health and safety, CDE’s Foster said.

“There’s simply no way around the fact that for many students, this is going to impact how we deliver services to those students,” Foster said.

It’s complicated, in part because of the digital divide. Some of Colorado’s 178 school districts lack the infrastructure for online learning, limiting the kinds of services that can be offered to students throughout the state.

Additionally, the severity of a student’s disability can influence how well they can progress in an online learning situation. Special education teachers have a really wide range of needs to address among students, Foster said.

He said his office can issue broad guidance on working with students with special needs during remote learning — for instance, by emphasizing the need for parents to be involved in decision-making. But the best path forward is one in which districts take a student-by-student approach for kids with disabilities.

What’s most important, Foster said, is making sure that “kids have access to educational opportunities,” not all of which have to be delivered online.

What Foster doesn’t want to see happen is students being deprived of online learning because of their disabilities.

“Nothing that’s happening for any child takes the place of in-person learning, but I think there is no reason why kids cannot continue to make progress on their IEP goals and objectives by and large,” Foster said.

Some students might not make as much progress or might even lose some skills, but that doesn’t chip away at the overall effectiveness of the education they’re receiving, and that means schools may have to circle back and pay extra attention to those areas in which students may have lost ground or did not advance in the ways outlined for them.

Deronn Turner poses with her 10-year-old daughter Shepsira Turner at home in Denver on April 15, 2020. The coronavirus-mandated closure of school means Deronn has taken over special education duties for Shepsira, who has Down syndrome, as well as the educations of her older children (ages 15, 18 and 20) who are also now learning from home. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Even before the pandemic, services for kids with disabilities were falling short, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit focused on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity.

“Before the crisis, our special education students were some of the most underserved students in Colorado. As we move into this new reality, we have to ensure that the new structures don’t exacerbate those realities or inequities,” Mascareñaz said.

The disparities intensify when factors such as race, class and language intersect with special education, Mascareñaz said. For example, a bilingual student enrolled in special education didn’t stand a big chance of accessing great service before COVID-19.

Now, it’s critical to push districts — and they must push themselves — to ensure that students with individualized needs are supported in the ways they need to be, Mascareñaz said.

Online learning will not work for all students with special needs, Mascareñaz said, and he emphasized the need for schools to incorporate student and parent input on what is and is not working into the ongoing conversation around remote learning.

“Schools should always make sure that students and families are at the table to ensure their voices are heard,” he said.

Districts develop contingency plans to transition students

Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver, also sees online learning as a viable option for students with special needs.

When a district offers virtual learning, AdvocacyDenver — which promotes the rights of people with disabilities and pushes for inclusive communities — expects they make the same opportunity available to children with disabilities, Bisceglia said.

Whether students with disabilities are still getting an effective education right now is an unanswered question in Bisceglia’s mind.

“I think it’s too early to say,” she said. And it depends on the school — while some have devised detailed contingency plans for their students, others aren’t as thorough in the contingency plans they create for students with disabilities.

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Denver Public Schools staff has developed contingency plans for students that include elements of learning that can still be facilitated during remote schooling and those that are not possible to carry on and that will have to wait until in-person services resume, said Robert Frantum-Allen, the district’s director of special education. Once in-person services pick back up, staff will have to determine if schools owe students compensatory services to make up for what was missed.

All students with disabilities are being served very similarly as services are dictated by federal law under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Frantum-Allen said. Services are determined by a local educational team composed of parents, special education providers, related service providers such as a speech language pathologist and a student if they’re age 14 or older.

A contingency plan, part of federal guidance, transitions an IEP from expectations set during in-person instruction to expectations set for remote learning, Frantum-Allen said.

About 10,000 of DPS’s 92,000 students fall under special education. That’s pretty typical of districts, Frantum-Allen said, as in any given district usually about 20% of students will have a disability with about half qualifying for special education and the other half qualifying for a 504 plan. Such plans cater to students with a disability who do not require specialized instruction but still need accommodations and related services. 

The district has three options for students with disabilities when it comes to remote learning. Among them, teachers can implement a curriculum provided by the district, teachers with strong experience can devise their own lessons online or teachers and students can handle assignments with pencil and paper.

Teachers guide parents over the phone to help students with severe disabilities, who can’t engage on a computer for a long period of time, Frantum-Allen said. 

All DPS kids are general education. Special education teachers help course teachers modify classwork for kids with disabilities, he said. Since students with special needs work remotely, they might participate in one-on-one instruction or in small groups working toward their IEP goals. 

Deronn Turner and her 10-year-old daughter Shepsira Turner together proudly display Shepsira’s current project – improving her writing of the letter “e” – at home in Denver on April 15, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Frantum-Allen doesn’t know the percentage of special education students currently engaged in remote learning but said DPS staff has worked hard to assist families through the transition.

“I think that our teams are doing the best they can to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

At Harrison K-8 School, in Cañon City, special education staff have taken a similar approach as they’ve moved their students to remote learning. Students with disabilities are in general education classes as much as possible, even now in a digital environment, said Teresa Manfredo, a special education teacher at the school.

At the elementary school level, each teacher has a Google classroom that the special education teachers can access so that they can jump in and give students with disabilities assignments that are at their level. Special education teachers also schedule office hours for one-on-one interactions with students, said Manfredo, who assists 30 kids.

Remote learning is set up for students with disabilities so they still are going to the same classes their classmates are and they’re cushioned with extra support from their paraprofessional and a special education teacher. They also still have access to additional services they need in focus areas like speech and occupational therapy.

Outside the means of delivery, not much has changed for the school’s special education students, Manfredo said.

“We’re still modifying where modifications need to be made and we’re still accommodating where accommodations need to be made,” she said.

“We’re trying to do business as usual,” she added, “because these kids deserve the same education as every other student.”

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