Young girl studying at home, using laptop

Remote or distance learning in the age of COVID-19 continues to be an enormous challenge for teachers and parents as they try to meet the needs of each and every student. For the 7 million pupils with special needs and or learning disabilities, it’s even more imperative that resources and methodology are implemented to make sure that none of them are left behind.

Pre-pandemic schooling required individually tailored programs for special needs students according to an Individual Education Plan as prescribed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. In the new education landscape of Zoom and Google classrooms, making these programs effective is proving difficult.

Tyree Stewart, 39, a working-class, single mother of four, is increasingly frustrated as she struggles to balance work as a billing and coding specialist from her suburban townhouse in Wicomico County, Md. and engaging her youngest son, who has autism, in distance learning.

“Children with special needs must be in a classroom setting with their teacher and one-on-one help,” said Stewart. Her son Christian, an outgoing 7-year-old, is in the second grade. His struggle with distance learning is resulting in outbreaks that concern his mother, who is trying to divide her time between him and three other children ages 15-22.

“Christian is not focused at all,” added Stewart. “He has had several meltdowns since school has started. When I’m at work, his sister has to help him log in while trying to do her own studies. Christian’s school ran out of laptops, so we had to use my cell phone for him to do his schoolwork. I feel like I am the teacher, principal, and all of the above. It’s difficult to focus on my work and him at the same time. The whole situation has brought me to tears.”

Stewart is not alone. In Atlanta, Dominique Hill is an outspoken advocate for her teen daughters, Brittany, 16, and Aiesha, 14, both of whom continue to participate exclusively in online only classes. Both girls attended Atlanta Public Schools and when the pandemic closed schools in March 2020, they, like millions of other students around the nation, moved to an online learning platform. And while the idea of taking classes online was at first novel, the challenges of the learning divide initially took a toll on the family. Aiesha, who has autism and muscular dystrophy, is on the spectrum of disabilities from attention deficit disorder to dyslexia, and expressive language disorder to reading disability.

“Since my daughter’s first day of school I have been an advocate, an active parent who sat in the principal or some other administrator’s office to ensure my child’s progress,” said Hill. “But in the first week of the online learning program it appeared that we are all working through the process and figuring it out together. It was pretty much a piecemeal approach, starting with me having to purchase three laptops in a single day, not knowing that we need Chromebooks for the girls’ assignments.”

What Stewart and Hill were finding out is that learning is not about a place, it’s about the relationship between teacher and student. With that relationship upended, there needed to be more innovative solutions.

Angela Watson’s recent podcast, The Best Ideas from the Distance Learning Playbook, is a great place to start to get some innovative ideas for connection and engagement. Hill, like most parents of students in special learning online classes, is immersed in the age-old fight for mainstream learning for Aiesha, and quick to make the distinction that the virtual learning her special daughter gets rivals – if not exceeds – the relatively conventional education her 16-year-old receives. Essentially her in-school learning plan mirrors her online learning.

“Aiesha’s classes required that I work side by side with her to explain and reinforce the teachers instructions and assignments, after which I would get on the phone with her teachers to clarify the assignment and discuss Aiesha’s progress,” explained Hill, a single mom who works as an events planner for a private Atlanta country club. “Last year she had assignments like class competitions to create a dress from toilet tissue and paint her face with kabuki-style makeup. She got high marks for both, but I didn’t know how these assignments would accomplish our goal of preparing her to compete in a post-secondary world.”

Despite everything, Hill is positive about the education her special needs student is getting in the new school year. She appreciates replacing the limited number of books and traditional learning tools with a digital platform, essentially crossing the great digital divide kids in underserved communities face.

“In this new school year, I am seeing a number of improvements in the online curriculum for special needs kids. I actually think things are getting better,” she said. “They’re able to share the information they would eventually get from books in a much bigger and global way. I believe that an offshoot of the new learning environment is that she is becoming more familiar with technology. I just make sure she is in the right classroom and assess what she needs from me. If you don’t interact, you are doing your child a disservice.”

With Reporting by Roz Edward, The Michigan Chronicle and Brigette Squire, The Washington Informer