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Students return to school at Barrow Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. Beyond infection concerns, students with special educational needs now lack access to necessary in-person therapeutic services. Remote services aren’t always accessible for them. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

The Clarke County School District has gone back and forth between in-person and online learning for elementary and middle school students. One group feels left behind by the district’s decisions: families with special needs students.

When the district decided to reopen classrooms starting Nov. 9, it offered in-person classes to all children in grades K-8. The district has since returned to virtual learning. One parent, Kendra Kline, unenrolled her child from the district due to a myriad of disagreements.  

“I know that my son isn't the only specialized student who is really missing out on having in-person support and services,” Kline said. “I'm very disappointed in the district's decision to not prioritize those students.” 

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities aren’t naturally at a higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the underlying medical conditions they might have can lead to increased vulnerability. According to one preliminary study, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are three times more likely to die from the coronavirus. 

Beyond infection concerns, students with special educational needs now lack access to necessary in-person therapeutic services. Remote services aren’t always accessible for them.

In a letter published Aug. 28 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine professor John Constantino argued that remote learning exacerbates social isolation issues within the special needs community. These students should be prioritized for in-person learning, Constantino wrote. 

“Millions of people around the world are taking full advantage of screen-based technologies to mediate interpersonal connection, but this is an impossibility for many with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for whom virtual interaction—even if accessible—is an inadequate substitute,” said Constantino, who serves as the co-director of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

For Lisa Woodruff, CCSD’s original option between in-person learning and virtual learning didn’t feel like an option at all. With so many students sharing the same building, Woodruff chose to keep her son away from the Early Learning Center, where he is in preschool. 

Woodruff’s son, who has Down syndrome, hasn’t received in-person therapy since before the pandemic. In February, he almost walked. He still hasn’t reached that milestone. 

“It's incalculable what he's losing out on,” Woodruff said. “We have three kids, and he's just bearing the brunt of this.”

Woodruff and another parent, Maureen Bishop, commended their children’s teachers and therapists. They are making the best of the situation, they said. 

Roughly 7 million Americans ages 3-21 are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to 2013 data, there are about 175,000 students in Georgia who received special education services under IDEA. 

Heidi Hill, CCSD’s executive director of special education and behavior supports, said the district serves 1,935 students under Individualized Educational Plans. When the district reopened its classrooms, over 50% of those students opted for in-person learning. 

“Our staff continues to explore opportunities to expand options in addition to district-wide instructional models,” Hill said in a written statement. “We applaud our teachers and paraprofessionals for their ingenuity, tenacity, and positivity during this unprecedented time.” 

Kevin Ayres, a special education professor at the University of Georgia, helps operate two model classrooms that serve 14 CCSD students. The classrooms, staffed by education professors and graduate students, aim to help young children with communication delays successfully transition to another environment with less support. 

Ayres has seen how special needs students and their teachers and parents have been impacted by the pandemic, regardless of the instructional model they choose. He believes students with  developmental delays should be prioritized for in-person learning. However, Ayres said classrooms aren’t perfect either. 

“Even when the kids are in the school, they’re a lot more isolated now,” Ayres said. “There’s much less interaction between kids outside of their own classroom. So that presents other barriers. They’re not getting to interact with kids who are not in special ed.”  

Kline’s son received some in-person therapy at a playground in full PPE through a special arrangement. She said she unenrolled him upon realizing that not all special needs students were receiving the same treatment. 

“I feel like I've been screaming into a void and no one is listening to me, and no one is responding to me,” Kline said. “And I don't know what to do anymore. Because none of my efforts have resulted in any change in what they're doing at the district level.”