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News >  Education

As special education moves online, caretakers take on added duties to keep kids engaged

As school districts move toward online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, special education students and their families are facing a tough reality: There’s no easy substitute for the hands-on guidance of a teacher or paraeducator.

For them, an email or a face on a screen isn’t the same as a gentle, reassuring touch from the staff they’ve worked with since September.

Though districts are doing the best they can, the burden is on parents and guardians to lessen the inevitable regression that will arise from the current closure of schools.

Experts agree on one thing: Consistency is the best lesson families can provide.

“Kids need some consistency and predictability in an uncertain time,” said Brian Trimble, owner of the Herzog Family Center preschool on the South Hill.

“Creating routine is extremely important,” said Trimble, a former teacher in Spokane who also has a son with Down syndrome.

“Reading a story right before bed or at the same time every day helps build a sense of normalcy,” Trimble said.

Those routines are important for any child, but even more so for special needs children during uncertain times, such as the current pandemic.

“Everything is upside-down, they pick up on that anxiety,” said Trimble, adding that parents can’t expect themselves to move seamlessly into teaching mode.

“Parents have to forgive themselves for not doing everything the right way,” Trimble said.

Meanwhile, the experts – special education teachers and paraeducators – are at a bigger disadvantage as their peers following the closure of schools.

Online and distance learning are less adaptable to special education, but educators are trying to adjust.

“We are trying to provide resources for special ed students,” said Becky Ramsey, director of special education services at Spokane Public Schools. “I want them to know that we have an extremely talented team of people who are ready, willing and able to help, and that includes my administrative team.”

Teachers are using multiple modes of communication, but Ramsey said “email is the best bet.”

Districts have been given some latitude by the state superintendent’s office, which in turn has followed guidance from the federal government.

Federal law mandates that individuals with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in everything schools provide, including online learning.

A mix of factors – lack of clarity in state laws, unclear guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and a reluctance to run afoul of federal law – has left some school districts struggling to get their online learning programs off the ground.

Uncertainty has handcuffed some districts, forcing them to shut down their online learning operations, at least temporarily.

That isn’t the case in Eastern Washington, where districts are attempting to engage and communicate with families.

For example, Ramsey held a virtual question-and-answer session Wednesday, answering questions from parents.

The state of Washington told districts last week they are “encouraged to brainstorm ways to provide services to their students and how to individualize these services based on individual student need.”

“Districts should make decisions individually based on student needs, and the focus should be on supporting students and their parents/caregivers in engaging in systems that promote safe behaviors in the home and community,” the state superintendent’s office said.

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