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Coronavirus

Could special needs students fall through cracks while schools navigate e-learning?

Parents of special needs students, like Dana Hall of Naperville, face unique challenges with educating their kids while schools are closed. Her son Keller, 11, left, is severely autistic and nonverbal and normally attends an out-of-district therapeutic day school. Her 8-year-old son Grady, right, works on an e-learning assignment.
Parents of special needs students, like Dana Hall of Naperville, face unique challenges with educating their kids while schools are closed. Her son Keller, 11, left, is severely autistic and nonverbal and normally attends an out-of-district therapeutic day school. Her 8-year-old son Grady, right, works on an e-learning assignment.

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Like many students stuck at home, Keller Hall watches a lot of movies and plays on his iPad while staying in because of schools closed for weeks now due to COVID-19.

Keller's situation isn't unique, but his educational needs are. He is a severely autistic and nonverbal 11-year-old placed at an out-of-district therapeutic day school -- Helping Hand in southwest suburban Countryside -- by Naperville Unit District 203.

As suburban school districts struggle to figure out e-learning and distance learning options for a majority of homebound students, children like Keller could fall through the cracks because they need specialized services and often one-on-one therapy that parents can't provide.

"I am Mom and not Teacher," says Dana Hall of Naperville. "It's hard for him to make that switch in his head."

While Keller needs help with functional life skills, Hall's 8-year-old son Grady, a second-grader at Prairie Elementary School, is learning to navigate e-learning.

"It is overwhelming," said Hall about juggling working remotely in business development for a credit union, helping support Grady and figuring out what fits with Keller's Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals.

At school, Keller receives occupational and speech therapy on top of classroom instruction. Hall has been given exercises to give him so he doesn't fall behind.

"They encourage me to integrate him into my daily tasks, wiping the counters, sweeping the floor, folding socks," Hall said. "It definitely takes a lot longer for me to get him to comply and there has to be a big reward at the end. A lot of schools just weren't prepared to provide this type of support for families. This population benefits from more face-to-face, hands-on instruction. They are just at a loss right now."

Challenging change

Routines are important for special needs children. Breaking from the daily schedule of getting ready for school in the morning, riding a school bus and being in a classroom with peers throws everything out of whack.

"You can't mess with their routine," said Mona Khan, of Bolingbrook, whose 8-year-old son Maaz is autistic.

Khan said the past two weeks have been a constant struggle to reassure Maaz when he can't be with his third-grade peers at Plainfield Unit District 202.

"It was too much for him to handle and understand why," Khan said. "He is missing learning. He is missing his friends."

Maaz's teachers and therapists stay in touch through email, by sharing pictures and through video chats. He watches short videos to learn math, coloring, language and basic motor skills. Gadgets help keep Maaz on task, but his attention span is short-lived.

Khan, a special-education teacher for Muhsen, a weekend program for special needs children offered through various suburban mosques, is confident she can keep Maaz from sliding back despite these challenges.

"I got this," she said.

Varying needs

While some conditions are recognizable, like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, not all special needs are visible. Bridget McFeggan's 8-year-old son Bryce, a second-grader at Lakewood Elementary School in Carpentersville, falls into the invisible category.

Bryce needs help with sensory processing, speech, occupational therapy and social work. He is otherwise high-functioning but needs help controlling his body. His fine motor skills are not at grade level. Lengthy written or reading assignments are hard for him to comprehend.

Yet, amid the uncertainty and stress of managing e-learning, screen time and the restlessness of three children, McFeggan found a silver lining.

"In the middle of it all, my phone rang and it was my son's occupational therapist," said McFeggan, who works in special education at Community Unit District 300. "She asked how we are. Not just him, but my whole family. This social distancing has been so difficult on us all. She asked me to save her home number because she wasn't sure when this will all be over and wanted to make sure I knew she was there for us, if we needed her."

Anxious mom

Dana McGary of Carpentersville tries hard not to let her 8-year-old son Lennox see her anxiety and fear.

A third-grader at Eastview Elementary School in Algonquin, Lennox has high-functioning autism with combined type ADHD. His teacher, occupational and speech therapists and adaptive physical education instructor have provided specific guidelines for his therapy and e-learning lessons beginning next week.

"However, it is still so hard," McGary said. "I feel like a failure saying that, but it is. I chose not to give my son any type of medication therapy for his ADHD. We tried more than once and he had terrible side effects that did not 'go away over time.'"

Lennox has lots of energy. With his structured day turned upside down, his clinical anxiety is rearing its head and has been amplified.

McGary urges Lennox to take sensory breaks and employ deep breathing and self-soothing techniques to help him focus when he feels overwhelmed.

"His anxiety is through the roof at times," she said. "He senses fear all around him, and he feels it too. We take it one feeling and emotion at a time."

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