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By Chaya Tong ::
Robyn Dobruck trailed her 10-year-old son, Sam, with an iPad as he walked from the computer screen and virtual school, his teacher’s voice playing through the speakers.
It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and like many kids with special needs, Sam, who is nonverbal and has Down syndrome and autism, struggled to access virtual school.
Gone were the classroom setting and daily social interactions. Gone too were the one-on-one aide, the specialized learning equipment, and the occupational, physical, and speech therapy sessions
–– services families normally got from school.
Instead, there was a Zoom screen.
“One of the greatest wins for us with school is the social piece,” Dobruck said. “Being around other children, learning how to be around other kids and not harm them, being with other adults and listening to instructions they give. It was a real challenge to lose the major piece of school which benefits our son.”
In March 2020, schools around the U.S. closed because of the pandemic. With an emergency pivot to distance instruction, schools embraced new teaching techniques and confronted the limitations of virtual learning. Students in special day classes were particularly impacted by online elementary school.
That was true at Springhill Elementary in Lafayette, a Northern California city of 25,000 east of Oakland that went online for the remainder of the 2020 school year and part of the next.
Many students had a hard time sitting stil at the computer for a whole school day.
Some disabilities required hands-on learning or professional intervention. Others made it difficult for students to see the Zoom screen or hear the computer audio.
“It’s not an ideal situation for students who have attention and learning disabilities,” Principal Mette Thallaug said. “We have general education students who thrived on Zoom. They learned and they were doing an amazing job, but students with special needs – that period of time was not a learning time.”
Issues that many elementary school students faced with online school were accentuated for special day students. Students had technology issues that required parent intervention. Even seemingly simple tasks like jumping on and off Zoom for asynchronous activities or a lunch break were challenging.
Mildly to moderately disabled kids in Erin Caldwell’s 4th- and 5th-grade class opened Zoom in the morning and stayed logged on for the whole day. Instead of closing the Zoom for breaks, Caldwell put a timer up on the screen so students knew when to return to class.
“A lot of my parents wanted to take a hands
Though Caldwell learned later that some of the students watched YouTube during class, that problem was more common in the general education or “mainstream” classrooms.
A bigger problem was getting kids to participate in class, creating the learning environment that the live classroom naturally built.
“In the classroom, they feed off each other and are inspired to do stuff
.,” Caldwell explained. “On a screen, it’s hard to foster that.”
For students with moderate to severe disabilities, facilitating schooling fell to parents. The school provided material sets for parents such as yes/no sticks or colored squares that matched the items teachers used on the screen. Parents would lay out the choices at home and tell teachers what their child chose.
Dobruck and her husband bounced between their two kids, helping navigate the new world of online school.
School administration eventually allowed Melissa Johnston, who teaches the moderate to severe special needs class at Springhill, to drop off specialized chairs and learning equipment to students’ houses.
With her job share partner, Johnston masked up, put on gloves, sprayed everything with disinfectant and drove around town to make deliveries to each family’s home.
Sam received his school chair, which has a five-point harness and wheels. Though the chair enabled him to say in front of the screen physically, it was no panacea.
For example, he had difficulty watching class on Zoom because he could not see things well on a two-dimensional screen.
“To have all of his academics and his time to be strapped into a seat looking at a screen, it was difficult for him to even attend to anything or look at anything,” Dobruck said.
Unable to see the Zoom screen and missing out on the limited social interaction it provided, Sam resisted attending school.
“He would fight getting into his chair. A lot of times if I’d get him out of his chair to change a diaper or eat, getting him back in the chair was impossible because he was so frustrated looking at a screen like that,” Dobruck said.
His teachers did their best to engage him. They lured him in and rewarded him with songs, knowing that he loved music. But the experience was still draining.
“It was very exhausting for him to be in a space where he was locked in and couldn’t move and was having a hard time understanding what’s going on,” Dobruck said.
While some students struggled with the Zoom video, others struggled with the audio.
Lara Peng’s 13-year-old son, Joshua, is deaf and has cochlear implants. At school, he normally uses an FM system, in which the teacher speaks into a microphone and the sound is transmitted directly to him. But during distance learning, there was no such audio system.
“We were having to manage on our side just him being able to access the education they were offering him, and I know the school was trying to pivot, but it was very difficult for him, especially being deaf and needing to communicate on his talker,” Peng said.
Therapies normally provided by the school – occupational, physical, and speech – were not accessible until the elementary school was back in person, almost a year after the March 2020 school shutdown.
Speech therapy was eventually provided on Zoom, though the service was difficult given its typically hands-on nature. Ordinarily, the therapist puts their hands in the child’s mouth to get the correct positioning to help them say the word. If this is done incorrectly, it can slow the child’s progress.
Joshua had no problem sitting for class.
“The thing he hated was speech therapy because he’s used to someone helping say the words,” she said. “I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel safe.”
The school district eventually offered aides from a third-
“With COVID and no vaccinations, we couldn’t accept that help because it could be anybody coming in from anywhere at any time with all these exposures that we had no knowledge about trying to work with our child,” Peng said.
Dobruck’s family used the service, and though the aides were very kind, school remained challenging.
“We had maybe three or four different people over the course of a couple of months,” she said.
Dobruck spent much of the time explaining her son’s conditions and communication to the aides only to do it again the following week when a new person appeared.
“I spent just as much time almost training these people to know [him] a little bit and then they would move on the next week and somebody else would come the next week, so it got to be more than it was worth,” she said.
With both parents working full time and two other children also in online school, Peng’s family hired outside help.
“I mean, honestly, talk about the great divide. We had a different level of access because of our income levels. We could afford to have a full-
But in all the chaos of online elementary school, there were still good moments – small moments of connection in a year that was otherwise scary and isolating.
Kids gave lunchtime house tours to their classmates on Zoom. Despite being socially distanced, students got some face-to-face interaction with their teachers.
“I went by their houses. We did drive-bys and I talked to them through the porches,” Johnson, the special needs teacher at Springhill, said.
And even on Zoom, kids could enjoy choose-your-own-adventure stories and sing silly songs.
In October 2020, special day classes were allowed back on campus. General education students returned later in the year, so initially, special needs students had the campus to themselves.
Students with mild to moderate needs wore masks. Staff and teachers wore face shields and full scrubs. For more severely disabled students, wearing a mask was not always an option. Masks could impede students’ breathing, and students would not understand the need to wear them.
“My students take their mask off and throw it at me,” Johnston laughed. “I have one little boy that knows how to pull it and break it so it bounces back and hits you in the face.”
When students transitioned back to in-person learning, the routines teachers had worked so hard to build on Zoom shattered again.
Johnston noted that her students were reluctant to leave their classroom. She decided to change the recess schedule for her students, taking them out for the last five minutes of general education’s recess period and keeping the rest of the time to themselves, free of sensory overload.
While academic and developmental regression was difficult to track, the social impact of virtual school was palpable. Caldwell, the 4th- and 5th-grade teacher, noted that the interaction between mainstream and special-ed classes declined when kids first came back to campus.
“My class used to be really popular on campus. It was cool … to come in and help,” she said.
For instance, pre-pandemic, “buddy readers” came into Caldwell’s class to read library books with her students.
“When we were able to reintegrate that again, the fourth graders coming in were like second graders,” Caldwell said. “They were afraid of my class. They didn’t know how to navigate a special
While opinions vary about how successful virtual school was, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that in-person school is school is better than Zoom.
“It was difficult for families. It was difficult for the kids,” Thallaug, the principal, said. “They didn’t learn as much as they would have if they were in person.”
“I think that he would have been happier and maybe even gained more skills going on walks with me or jumping on the trampoline or interacting with the two of us in person,” she said.
For some kids with special needs, virtual school was more of a hassle than it was worth.
“The screen was a very difficult thing for him to attend to. I don’t think that he actually benefited much from it,” Dobruck said.
When the Lafayette School District opted for virtual school for all students, Peng understood that it was necessary to protect the teachers’ health and safety. She wishes, though, that they had pivoted back to in-person learning for special day classes sooner.
“Seeing other districts back in school or that never stopped was hard for us where their kids with special needs were not asked to go virtual,” Peng said. “I had friends who had to quit their jobs where that’s the option because you have to be there for your kid to learn how to access school now.”
More than two years after the initial shutdown, school has slowly returned to normal.
Students started the 2022-23 school year in early August. Classes are fully in person. The days of Zoom screens and lockdown seem unlikely to return. Perhaps virtual school, tough times and lost connection can remain just that.
“He loves people and that has not changed,” Peng said of her son. “When he goes to school now, he’s all hugs and can’t wait to see his friends.”
As soon as Joshua sees a friend outside his classroom, he excitedly jumps out of the car to meet them.
“Whatever he experienced during COVID hasn’t traumatized him or affected who he is today,” Peng said. “I see him doing really well.”