Will special-needs students fall through the cracks as school resumes?

  • Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton, with her sons, Aidyn, 9, center, and Logan, 7, says their school reopening plan doesn't do enough for special education students.

      Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton, with her sons, Aidyn, 9, center, and Logan, 7, says their school reopening plan doesn't do enough for special education students. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Wheaton resident Rachel Heneghan has two sons, Aidyn, 9, left, and Logan, 7, with varying degrees of deafness. Heneghan is frustrated that special-needs students might not adjust to the changes this fall to in-person instruction.

      Wheaton resident Rachel Heneghan has two sons, Aidyn, 9, left, and Logan, 7, with varying degrees of deafness. Heneghan is frustrated that special-needs students might not adjust to the changes this fall to in-person instruction. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton and her sons Aidyn, 9, grabbing the ball, and Logan, 7. Heneghan has concerns about school districts' reopening plans for students like her sons, who have varying degrees of deafness.

      Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton and her sons Aidyn, 9, grabbing the ball, and Logan, 7. Heneghan has concerns about school districts' reopening plans for students like her sons, who have varying degrees of deafness. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Aidyn Heneghan, 9, rear, and his brother Logan, 7, get rid of some extra energy Thursday. Their mom, Rachel Heneghan, is concerned about districts' reopening plans.

      Aidyn Heneghan, 9, rear, and his brother Logan, 7, get rid of some extra energy Thursday. Their mom, Rachel Heneghan, is concerned about districts' reopening plans. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Parents of special-needs students, like Dana Hall of Naperville, face unique challenges with few schools offering in-person services. Her 10-year-old son, Keller, has severe autism and is nonverbal. He attends an out-of-district therapeutic day school, Helping Hand in Countryside.

      Parents of special-needs students, like Dana Hall of Naperville, face unique challenges with few schools offering in-person services. Her 10-year-old son, Keller, has severe autism and is nonverbal. He attends an out-of-district therapeutic day school, Helping Hand in Countryside. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton, with her sons, Aidyn, 9, center, and Logan, 7, says their school reopening plan doesn't do enough for special education students.

      Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton, with her sons, Aidyn, 9, center, and Logan, 7, says their school reopening plan doesn't do enough for special education students. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/24/2020 6:32 AM

As schools begin to navigate a return to remote -- and in some cases hybrid or in-person -- learning, some parents of special-needs students fear their children might fall through the cracks as they struggle to adjust to a new normal.

Last spring's remote learning experiment during the statewide COVID-19 lockdown was challenging at best for families of students with autism, learning disabilities, physical or developmental impairments and other diagnoses.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

With most suburban districts starting the academic year with remote instruction, many schools do not yet have a plan for serving these children. A few are working to bring in special-needs students earlier than the rest of their peers for occupational and speech therapy and other support. Educators and parents agree the best strategy for teaching special-needs students is in person with one-to-one support services.

Among the concerns parents and educators share is how enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing will work with special-needs students, especially those with medical complications, such as breathing and sensory issues.

That problem is acute for parents of autistic children like Keller Hall, 10, of Naperville, says his mother, Dana Hall.

"Keller will not tolerate a face covering, so I was required to get a doctor's waiver," Hall said.

Keller will return to school full time and in person Sept. 1. He receives occupational therapy and other services at Helping Hand Center in Countryside, where staff members will be wearing masks and face shields.

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"My first, biggest concern is how he is going to adjust to that environment of seeing people like that," Hall said. "It's going to be very distracting. He is so severe that anytime we have to do any kind of medical or dental intervention, he has to be sedated. Is he going to see that and associate that look with a medical procedure? He obviously has anxiety about that."

Hall is concerned about how Keller's therapists will communicate with masks on.

"Facial cues, just seeing the mouth, in general, is so important for these developmentally delayed kids," she said. "I'm happy that they have an in-person learning plan in place. I just hope it doesn't create more turmoil in his life because of the restrictions in place in the current school environment."

In Mount Prospect Elementary District 57, officials plan to spread small groups of special-needs students among larger classrooms to accommodate social distancing.

Classes begin today, mostly remotely for students in preschool through eighth grade. A half-day, in-person option is available for students who need interventions, including about 260 students who have individualized education programs and are eligible for special services.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It certainly is a challenge, especially because we are bringing in some of our neediest students," said Sara Tyburski, District 57's director of student services. "Obviously, they are required to wear masks unless they are medically contraindicated."

Tyburski said some students might need breaks from mask-wearing while younger learners don't really understand social distancing. Special-needs students also will have some remote instruction with their general education peers, but it will be more structured than in the spring when educators were forced to react swiftly to school shutdowns.

"Our plan for this fall is much more thoughtful and less reactive," she said. "It will more closely mirror a typical school day."

Some districts haven't yet released plans for dealing with special-needs students, leading many parents to voice their frustrations.

Among them is Rachel Heneghan of Wheaton, whose two sons, Aidyn, 9, and Logan, 7, have varying degrees of deafness and won't be able to read lips if their teachers are masked. The boys receive speech and occupational therapy at Villa Park Elementary District 45, which plans to go fully remotely.

"I still don't know who my child's mainstream teacher is and what is their plan," Heneghan said. "I have no idea how they are going to deliver. All of us parents, we are just wondering why we are the last to know."

Officials at Elgin Area School District U-46 say they hope to bring some students in for specialized support services. Yet that will depend on whether it can be done safely with social distancing and other safety measures, said Leatrice Satterwhite, director of specialized student services for the state's second-largest school district, which begins remote learning today.

"Some of our medically fragile students, it's going to be a challenge to engage with them with the 6 feet of social distancing," said Satterwhite, adding some of those students need help going to the toilet or being fed.

For now, U-46 will be providing one-on-one and group therapy remotely for its more than 5,600 students who receive special services, Satterwhite said.

Despite the need for hands-on support, some parents of special-needs students don't feel comfortable returning to in-person classes during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Chaula Gupta, of Glenview, knows her 7-year-old son, Nirvan, who has autism, won't keep a mask on and gets agitated. While Glenview Elementary District 34 is allowing parents the option of some in-person services starting today, sending Nirvan to school at the risk of everyone else isn't worth it, she said.

"If he's fine but he catches it and passes it on to someone else that gets impacted by it, that won't sit easily with me," Gupta said.

Gupta said a change in routine is hard for children with special needs, but she recognizes it's also difficult for districts to cater to individualized needs when entire school systems are switching to remote learning.

"It is frustrating, but if there was ever a moment to show grace to each other, it is right now," she said. "If I was a single parent who was working or I didn't have help, I would have probably been in a different mindset. I can afford to and therefore I should keep him home because I can support him in other ways."

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