Hunter Huff knows how he learns best — and it’s not online.
Hunter, a rising ninth grader at Potomac High School, has dyslexia, and his mom says he is behind in reading. When he’s learning something new, he usually has a lot of questions. It’s hard to ask these questions over email, Hunter said, since it might mean waiting a day or two for a response. And in the meantime, he said, “I’m still stuck.” (A slow at-home internet connection doesn’t help matters, either.)
So, when school starts back up again on Sept. 8, Hunter wants to be back in a classroom, at least for some of the time. He might have this option, too: The Prince William County School Board voted earlier this month to allow some special education students to attend school in-person from the start of the new year, even as most of their classmates will learning virtually for at least the first quarter.
But the decision isn’t so simple. On top of Hunter’s educational challenges, he also experiences a number of medical issues, making him more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. He just had surgery, and whether he’s able to return to school in-person will hinge upon how his recovery goes, said his mom, Sandra Kern.
It’s not yet clear how many of Prince William County’s 12,000 students with individual education plans (IEPs) will be cleared for in-person learning, but officials have said that decision will be made on an individual basis.
In the meantime, though, parents like Kern are weighing the potential costs of keeping their children home versus the risks of sending them back to school.
“Yes, I want my child to have a good education,” Kern said. “But at the cost of his life?”
Virtual experiences compound worries
For many families who have kids with disabilities, this question is further complicated by doubts their students’ needs can be met in a virtual setting. The experience their kids had during the first bout of remote learning from March to June didn’t do much to assuage their concerns.
When Gov. Ralph Northam announced in March that Virginia schools would switch to virtual learning for the rest of the year, the state department of education decided teachers would cease providing new instruction.
During this period, according to the school division’s website, Prince William County could not offer students the same services they received through their individual education and 504 plans. However, according to the website, teachers provided support and accommodations to students with disabilities as they were able, and special educators reached out to students and their families at least once a week.
Nonetheless, although many families recognized the difficult and unprecedented circumstances that had been foisted upon teachers, many also expressed frustration with the challenges their children faced when school went online.
For Carolyn Blaylock’s son Bryce, a rising sophomore at Battlefield High School, instruction mainly took the form of Powerpoint lessons, handouts and articles. As a result, Blaylock emphasized, learning essentially ended in March for her son, who has ADHD, dyslexia and dysgraphia — a learning disability that interferes with writing and fine motor skills.
“Learning wasn’t interactive. It wasn’t anything that would be engaging and hold a student captivated,” she said. “That’s a really important thing when you’re working with students that have a learning disability — you can’t send them reading material with a link and expect that somebody with dyslexia is going to be successful.”
Now, Blaylock is waiting to hear whether her son will be allowed to return to a classroom in the fall. She and her son agree, she says: Another two months of virtual learning isn’t an option. When he isn’t in front of a teacher, it can be hard for him to follow along with the lesson. And, after seeing how remote learning went in the spring, Blaylock says her son doubts that he’d get the accommodations he needs in a virtual setting.
If in-person learning isn’t offered, Blaylock says, she intends to enroll Bryce in private school. Previously, she said her son had decided that it would be better for him to remain in public school, where he would be guaranteed certain services and accommodations under federal law. But it may be worse for Bryce to attend school virtually than attend school in-person without the support he needs, Blaylock said.
“If I have to go that route, I will be going after the county, and I will be looking for them to help defer those costs,” she said. “I don’t think, at this point, it’s necessary for me to pay for this when they’re the one dropping the ball.”
‘I can’t risk it.’
Like Bryce, Jeanine Ruppel’s son, Johnny, struggled when school went online.
Johnny suffered a severe brain injury at birth and has learned in the same self-contained classroom at Alvey Elementary School since he was in kindergarten, Ruppel said. There, teachers help him learn through hand-over-hand assistance and interact with him through his eye gaze device, a computer equipped with a camera that tracks eye movement to enable hands-free operation. A number of therapists and specialists — from physical and occupational therapists to speech therapists — also visit the classroom throughout the week.
After the pandemic closed schools, Ruppel said Johnny’s team of supporters tried to help him virtually. The therapists described stretches and activities that parents could try at home, and Johnny’s teacher posted a few videos his students could watch online, but the 11-year-old wasn’t having it. When Ruppel would bring out his eye gaze device, she said he’d cry and get frustrated with her.
“I don’t have the training to make sure he is accessing any of his educational needs,” she said. “I just have no clue how to get him to learn the way the teacher got him to learn, who went to school for this for many years.”
Since Johnny is one of the approximately 2,600 students in the school division taught in self-contained classrooms, he’ll have a better chance of being cleared to attend school in-person from the start of the first quarter. Denise Huebner, associate superintendent for special education and student services, has said such students are more likely to be identified for in-person instruction because they are unlikely to benefit from online instruction.
However, Ruppel has already told Johnny’s teacher not to expect him to return in the fall. Her son is medically fragile, she said, and would likely die if he were to contract COVID-19.
Deciding to keep her son home was tough for Ruppel, especially since she knows he won’t be getting the same caliber of education he gets in a classroom. She’s made up her mind, though: Johnny won’t be going back to school unless there’s a vaccine or the virus becomes less widespread.
“I can’t risk it,” she said. “It’s just too devastating.”
Melinda Vaikasiene understands Ruppel’s dilemma. She’s a mom to two kids with disabilities, who similarly struggled after school went online.
Vaikasiene’s son, Jojo, learns in a self-contained classroom at Osbourn Park High School. There, just like Johnny, the 19-year-old is typically supported by a whole team of therapists, specialists, teachers and aides.
And even though Jojo’s teacher held class Zoom calls twice per week and sent home handouts with his students after class went online, Vaikasiene said it was a tough transition for her son. He’s used to structure and routine, and Vaikasiene said she’s not sure if he understood why his whole world was suddenly upended.
Jojo’s 13-year-old little brother, JD, also stopped receiving the reading intervention instruction he typically gets for his dyslexia at Parkside Middle School. But no matter: As soon as he got wind that his grades would stay as they were, Vaikasiene said JD spent most of his time listening to audiobooks and taking care of animals on their hobby farm.
Still, Vaikasiene plans to keep her children home next quarter, regardless of whether they’d have the option of learning in-person. The risk is just too high for Jojo to contract the virus or spread it to others, she said.
But Vaikasiene says JD understands that come the fall semester, he’ll be stationed at his computer, doing his eighth grade schoolwork. Just as well, she is counting on the school district to offer her children the services they are guaranteed under their IEPs. She could be patient when things were falling apart, she said, but she expects more from her children’s schools now.
“Moving forward, we’re doing new instruction, we’re doing grading,” she said. “Our kids damn well better get what they’re supposed to get.”
Prince William County school officials declined to answer emailed questions for comment for this story. In a recent email to families, Huebner wrote that the office of special education has been meeting with staff across the school division to prepare them to offer services virtually in the fall. And as the county receives further guidance from the state education department, Huebner promised schools would reach out to parents to review their children’s learning situations and education plans.
It’s perfectly okay for families to be frustrated as they wait for further communication, Vaikasiene said. But at the same time, she said, they have to practice compassion.
“I was just saying to my 13-year-old, ‘We have to be kind to each other because this is such a novel situation,’” she said. “We have to work together. You can’t let that stuff ruin your day, and eventually we’ll figure it out.”
Reach Angela Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org