Distance Learning Presents Challenges for Special Education Students, Teachers

For children with special needs, following a routine can make them feel safe and improve their chances of success. Now their daily routines have been disrupted.

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The sudden switch to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic has been an adjustment for everyone involved.

But it has been especially tough for students with special needs, who often have trouble transitioning to new routines.

"Some days are harder than others," said Daniel Whitney, whose daughter Alessandra is on the autism spectrum and has generalized anxiety disorder.

Alessandra is struggling to embrace distance learning. But her father said she is making progress, in large part due to the support she is getting from her fifth grade teachers at Bennet Academy in Manchester.

"I just want to say that they are the best teachers," she said.

Stephanie Wanzer, a special education teacher in Trumbull, said the situation has been a learning curve for her as well.

Wanzer teaches 18- to 21-year-olds in a transition program at Cooperative Educational Services.

“The contact with them continually is the best part of the job," she said.

Wanzer had 10 students in the classroom. Online, she has five. She said there are a number of variables with distance learning, including students' ability, individual needs, and tech equity issues. There is also a growing amount of paperwork needed for accountability.

Through it all, Wanzer said her students keep her going.

"It’s always the students. And it’s trying to support their parents because we know that this is unprecedented times,” she said.

Parents are in "survival mode" right now, according to Beth Reel, acting assistant director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center (CPAC).

"We get a lot of calls from parents that are really second-guessing themselves," Reel said. "Parents are dealing with kids who are really struggling being at home. They're seeing regression."

Reel said CPAC has heard from some families who have not received any outreach from their schools.

"There have been challenges with districts not knowing exactly how to proceed with the state department guidance," she said.

In those cases, Reel encourages parents to reach out directly to the district and their child's teachers.

Reel said CPAC is in daily communication with the state Bureau of Special Education.

In response to an inquiry from NBC Connecticut, a spokesperson for the Connecticut State Department of Education said, "Districts are at different levels of capacity for delivering continued educational opportunities. We provide guidance and technical assistance to ensure they are continuously improving and stress that what is being provided to the general education population must also be provided to students with disabilities because students receiving special education are, first, general education students... CSDE stresses the need for consistent communication between schools and parents, which is vital not only to what is offered, but also to what is able to be received in the home environment."

The department also collaborated with CPAC on a webinar for parents.

Reel wants to assure parents they are doing a good job.

"We really want to encourage people to be kind to themselves. To be kind to each other," she said.

CPAC offers a number of resources for parents, including chats on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m.

Parents can also call CPAC's toll-free hotline at 1-800-445-2722.

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