For parents of children with disabilities, in-person school during COVID-19 has been a top priority. For these students and families, school is more than a classroom: It's a place for one-on-one therapies and important socialization.
Legally, students with disabilities are entitled to receive support services in class, but a survey from the nonprofit ParentsTogether said that just one in five families were actually receiving those services while learning remotely.
Tricia Bresnahan, whose son Ryan is in middle school, said that some therapies, like speech, worked well on Zoom, but others, like physical therapy, were suddenly removed. When Ryan's school opened for the 2020 school year, she was worried about the risk of coronavirus but decided it was worth taking a chance.
"I was a little worried, but then I thought, you know, his brother's going to school, his dad's going to work," Bresnahan told TODAY. "Like, I'm not going to keep him home, because he's still going to be exposed somewhat. And it just didn't seem fair, I thought."
Now, Ryan attends school regularly, wearing a mask.
For other parents, losing school support meant taking on their child's education by themselves.
"Losing all the help that (my daughter) gets in school was very hard, because I was by myself," said Paola Bacerra, whose daughter Abigail has Down syndrome.
Like Ryan, Abigail is now back in school, but Bacerra said she still worries about how COVID-19 safety protocols might affect her daughter's mental health. Abigail spends all day in one classroom.
"She will miss (interacting with other students) a lot," said Bacerra. "To be exposed to general education kids helps her a lot. ... She copies everything. Kids copy everything. By seeing other kids more advanced on areas where she is a little delayed, it helps her a lot."
Despite the changes, Bacerra said that overall, being in school is best for Abigail.
"She's so happy," she said.
Not all students are back in school, though — high schooler Claire Studley, who has Down syndrome, is still learning remotely after several family members contracted the illness. Her grandfather passed away from the virus in April.
"It's had a big impact on Claire, and it's part of the reason why she's doing virtual instruction," said Claire's father, Keith Studley. "We actually feel school is the best place for all kids now, especially kids with disabilities, but she does have some pre-existing conditions; she has trouble with respiratory illnesses. She's been hospitalized a couple of times with respiratory illness."
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While Claire is learning remotely, Studley said that it's important to figure out innovative ways to provide support.
"This is a time when, if you do have somebody in your family with a disability, you're going to have to change your normal way of home life," he said. "You may have to do more at this time to help kids stay on track."
Lending a hand can go outside the home, too — Studley suggests checking in with friends and neighbors who may have children with disabilities and see if they need support.
"If you have time, this would be a great time to offer to help," he said. "Either being with the child during school or maybe helping with some other home obligations so that the parent can work on the academics. ... Now's the time to step up and help the kids."
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