‘They fell through the cracks’: Parents worry kids with learning disabilities are regressing during online school

Kaelin Moody attends school from her home.
Kaelin Moody attends school from her home.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 4:51 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - School is a place for growth, but some parents worry their children are losing skills while attending school online. For parents of students with learning disabilities, there’s a deeper concern that their children are no longer receiving the specialized instruction they need to progress.

Candace Diama’s 8-year-old daughter Kaelin Moody has dyslexia and dysgraphia. As a student with a learning disability, Moody has an individualized education program that specifies her goals. Moody’s most recent program plan says she will have 400 minutes of special education a week and that she should be with peers for activities like reading. But Diama says Moody is getting just 40 minutes a week online with her special education instructor and little peer interaction.

Moody attends Rilke Schule German Charter School of Arts and Sciences. She just learned fractions, her favorite class is German and she likes online learning because she gets more breaks, but “I get distracted,” Moody said.

“When school does start again, she’s going to be that much farther behind and have to try to catch up that much harder,” Diama said. “It’s to the point where we’ll have to hire private tutors for her.”

Candace Diama is worried her daughter, Kaelin Moody, is not getting appropriate special...
Candace Diama is worried her daughter, Kaelin Moody, is not getting appropriate special education instruction.(Gilbert Cordova)

Diama isn’t the only parent who is concerned their child is being left behind with online learning. Shelly Vendetti-Vuckovich is the vice chair of the Alaska Special Needs PTSA. She’s been fielding emails from parents asking her what they should do now that their children are no longer receiving in-person care.

Vendetti-Vuckovich’s daughter is blind and developmentally delayed which qualifies her for a one-to-one aide. Because of COVID-19, Vendetti-Vuckovich said she hasn’t been able to get an aide to come to her home and to physically guide her daughter’s hand over Braille characters.

“I believe there will be complete regression,” Vendetti-Vuckovich said. “Already the Braille letters she did know, now she’s guessing at and we can practice but she does better with her teacher than she does with me.”

Vendetti-Vuckovich is a prominent advocate for special education in Alaska. She sits on the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, so making a decision that helps her daughter comes with other considerations. If she pulls her daughter out of the Anchorage School District before the October count, the district could lose money tied to student enrollment. If she keeps her daughter in online schooling through ASD, she risks her development.

“Now I’m kind of like, ‘why? Why am I doing that?’ And a lot of other parents are in my position and not knowing what to do because all of the rights we have for special education just went out the window,” Vendetti-Vuckovich said.

Intensive special education students like Vendetti-Vuckovich’s daughter bring in $77,090 each to school districts in the state, which is 13 times more than a general education student. Other special education students account for a 20% addition to the student allocation. Last year’s count recorded 7,109 special education students in ASD alone, according to Alaska Department of Education and Early Development data.

Free and appropriate

Students with learning disabilities are entitled to free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The federal law lays out the requirements for schools to work with parents on a student’s individualized education program so that they receive some educational benefits.

“A student’s [individualized education program] is written based off their needs, so we do not write IEPs because of a pandemic,” said Kendra Bartz, director of elementary special education at ASD. “We’re in a pandemic so we need to kind of accommodate for that so we have the continuous learning plan.”

Bartz said the district is aware of the challenges that come with online learning. Students are not in session for a full school day and student aides are now “sitting” with kids online in classes. The individualized education programs don’t change, but how the district enacts them has.

“This continuous learning plan, which is our adaptation to COVID-19 at each level of risk, and so that’s that interactive conversation with families on what the service might look like per each risk level,” said Jason Hlasny, director of secondary special education at ASD.

Vendetti-Vuckovich said the continuous learning program doesn’t help her daughter meet her goals. She wonders how her daughter is supposed to voluntarily engage in a conversation with a peer from home.

If a school isn’t making progress toward the goals outlined in the document, a parent can file a due process complaint. But since the circumstances are so unusual, some parents are hoping for in-person services to resume soon.

“I don’t know what to tell people other than ‘just hang in there and let’s hope for the best next quarter’ and once we’re there, once we’re back, throw a fit for [compensatory education] because every single kid on an [individualized education program] is going to suffer some degree of regression,” Vendetti-Vuckovich said.

Making up for lost progress

When special education services are not available, a school can work with families to set up remedial classes called compensatory education. Jacob Kammermeyer works on special education cases for the Disability Law Center, and he said in situations where a district doesn’t have a teacher who can conduct special education, the school can work with families to address the gap in services. Compensatory education does have downsides for the student though.

“One of the sort of terrible things about [compensatory education] as a remedy from the student perspective, it feels disciplinary to them. So the school has done something wrong, I am faultless in that and now I have to go to school on Saturday,” Kammermeyer said.

Instead, the Disability Law Center said school districts should not wait to resume in-person services to implement remedial measures and advises parents to seek additional help.

“Every day that schools remained closed because of COVID-19 makes it that much harder for children with disabilities to make appropriate progress on the goals and objectives in their [individualized education program],” the center said in a statement.

Some school districts in the state have resumed in-person service as COVID-19 case averages lowered the risk level. The state’s largest district, ASD, remains online as COVID-19 cases keep the district at a high-risk level.

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