When Cory Peterson wears his Carbondale Area School District uniform, he knows it’s time to learn.
The 8-year-old second-grader sits at his desk in what used to be his family’s dining room. An image from a laptop appears on the television screen. A district paraprofessional watches him through a webcam.
Cory’s mother wears an earpiece, hearing suggestions from the paraprofessional on how to keep Cory, who has autism, on task.
For the thousands of special education students in the region’s schools, virtual learning provides unique challenges as families juggle work schedules, keep track of therapy appointments and advocate for their children.
Parents worry about regression and the families who may have language barriers or are unaware of available resources.
Meanwhile, school districts work to move services online or find ways to deliver them in-person. Leaders worry about learning deficits because of the six months or more spent away from physical classrooms. Following the law must also be a priority, as special education claims and lawsuits could end up costing districts thousands in legal fees and settlements.
“We are going to do our very best to meet the needs of our special education students in an environment that is absolutely not conducive to that,” said Michael Mahon, Ph.D., superintendent at Abington Heights, which moves from a fully virtual to a hybrid schedule on Oct. 5. “We are looking forward to getting them back in the classrooms.”
Following the law
Federal law requires school districts to provide free, appropriate public education – known as FAPE – regardless of whether students learn in-person or virtually. Districts must continue to follow a student’s individualized education program, known as an IEP.
Across the region, children receive speech therapy while sitting in front of a computer screen. Occupational therapists evaluate children remotely. Teachers provide modified lessons to students of all abilities.
When school districts violate special education law or fail to follow a student’s IEP, the family can pursue special education litigation.
When a district is found liable or comes to a settlement with the family, the district places money into an account for the family to use for educational purposes. The district also must pay the opposing attorney’s legal fees. Districts nationwide have reported an increase in lawsuits since the coronavirus pandemic began, and local attorneys have held seminars for parents, educating them on their rights.
Half the districts in Lackawanna County began the year with a hybrid schedule, meaning students generally receive in-person instruction two days a week and then learn from home the remaining days. For children with the greatest needs, some of those districts offer in-person learning four or five days a week.
“The kids are super excited to be back, and be in a routine of school, see their friends, interact with the teacher,” said Bryan McGraw, superintendent of North Pocono, which started in a hybrid model and offers more in-person instruction to special education students. “We’re better able to assist them with the in-person instruction. That’s what we do best.”
In Old Forge, which also follows a hybrid schedule, autistic support and life skills students attend school five days a week. Since schools reopened, staff has assessed children for progress made or skills lost in the nearly six months school buildings were closed.
“We need to see where everyone is and address what students need,” Superintendent Erin Keating, Ed.D., said.
The Scranton School District, with more than 2,000 special education students – or about 20% of its enrollment – is not meeting legal requirements, the district’s special education director said at school board meeting earlier this month. The district is fully virtual until at least mid-November.
The IEPs of some students call for the assignment of a personal care assistant. Those employees are classified as paraprofessionals, and the Scranton School Board voted this month to furlough them as of Sept. 30. Though the district plans to recall some of those paraprofessionals to work with special education students, many of those employees have refused to go into student homes during the pandemic, Sharon Baddick, special education director, told the school board.
Rosemary Boland, president of the Scranton Federation of Teachers, which represents the paraprofessionals, said she discouraged them from going into students’ homes.
“I’m not walking into stores, and I’m going to tell someone else to go into a stranger’s house?” Boland asked. “I don’t want anyone walking into a home when you don’t know if someone has been coughing or sneezing. I don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy.”
Leslie Galante spent time this summer teaching her son to use a laptop.
Andrew, a fourth-grade Scranton student who has Down syndrome, watches virtual lessons and enjoys seeing his friends on the screen. Reading from the monitor is difficult, so Galante prints what she can for her son. When sitting in front of the computer becomes too hard, Andrew takes a break.
“He works really hard. He has special needs, and he does so well,” she said. “At the end of the day, he has to learn. I feel I’m doing the best I can.”
Despite the reluctance from the union, the district provided a personal care assistant to come to their home daily and assist Andrew with virtual learning and keeping him on task.
Galante works from home, juggling life with an infant daughter and a virtual schedule of therapies for her son.
“My son has a fair shot, but only because of everything we’re able to provide for him,” she said. “In a few months, we’ll know how much this is affecting him academically.”
Galante wonders about the families of other special education students – children who may not have a strong family support system or whose families are desperate for more help.
“I know this is tough for everyone, but the special education community is very vulnerable at this time,” she said. “Children with special needs regress. Sometimes it’s hard to get them back. That time is lost.”
Roseann Polishan works with special needs families throughout the region in her role as an advocate at the Arc of NEPA.
Polishan also advocates for her son, a Scranton junior who has autism. As she pushes to receive in-home support from the district, she hears from families whose schools have not made necessary accommodations or who feel overwhelmed.
“My kid and other kids need support,” she said.
Finding a routine
Jenna Konosky Peterson knows that for Cory to be successful, he needs a routine.
That’s why her son wears his school uniform for remote learning – even though the district does not require it.
A large, color-coded clock on the wall helps him see his schedule: spelling, phonics and writing at 8:30a.m., followed by reading, math, specials, breaks and social studies, ending at nearly 3 p.m. When Cory finishes a subject, he places the matching card in the done bin.
When he needs a break, he can visit the “sensory area” of the dining room and find calm in a fluffy blue chair.
Peterson reduced her hours at work to part-time so she can help her son learn. With the help of the virtual paraprofessional, teachers, therapists and advocates, she hopes to make the most of an unprecedented start to second grade.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” she said. “So far, we’ve had a positive experience in this challenging time.”
Special education resources
Roseann Polishan, advocate at the Arc of NEPA, says families of special needs children should call an IEP meeting with appropriate school personnel to discuss concerns and make the proper support and instructional requests.
Families should also seek advice and support from current providers, including behavioral health, case management, support coordinators and physicians.
For additional support, contact the following resources:
The Arc of NEPA: http://www.thearcnepa.org; covers Lackawanna, Susquehanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Carbon, Pike and Wayne counties and provides special education advocacy. Families may contact Polishan at 570-346-4010, or by email, email@example.com.
The Advocacy Alliance: https://www.theadvocacyalliance.org/; community service specialists/advocates on staff to help families in Lackawanna and Susquehanna counties.
Parent Education & Advocacy Leadership Center: https://pealcenter.org/; assists families of special education students throughout the state.
The Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network: https://www.pattan.net/parent-information/; information just for parents on special education, including on the state and local Right to Education Task Forces for families of special education students.
Consultline of the Office for Dispute Resolution: https://odr-pa.org/consultline-contact/; information helpline for families and advocates who have questions and concerns about special education for their students.
Sarah balances life as a reporter for The Times-Tribune and as the mom of two little girls. A graduate of Ithaca College, Sarah started covering education in 2006. She has received awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, Inland Press Association and Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association. She lives in Clarks Summit with her husband, their daughters and their sweet pug, Sadie. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 570-348-9133 or @HofiusHallTT.