Schooling during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the academic school year for many families throughout the country. While many grappled with a variety of uncertainties both in and out of schools, parents of students with disabilities found themselves navigating additional challenges as they anticipated the unique needs of their children. Many schools transitioned fully to remote learning, others continued to conduct learning in-person, while some schools offered a combination of both.
No matter the option chosen, parents had to prioritize their child’s safety while also working with educators to ensure that the support provided for the student’s disability continued during the pandemic. While the ADA and IDEA continues to provide students with legal rights to accommodations during the pandemic, there are still many risks that parents need to consider when choosing whether to conduct their child’s education remotely or in person.
While every school must follow state regulations regarding social distancing and masking to create the safest environment possible, there are still inherent risks in attending an in-person schooling environment. A child with a disability attending school in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic may experience barriers to receiving necessary accommodations and could also be more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.
There’s no question that certain accommodations are best delivered in-person. This allows children to obtain assistance from providers like physical therapists, occupational therapists, interpreters, and social workers. An interruption from school therapies, which differ from in-home therapies, may result in the student experiencing some regression due to a lack of services.. In addition, parents may not have the same access to the technological applications, programs, and resources available within the school system.
In addition to accommodation issues, there’s the obvious risk of COVID-19 exposure. The CDC states that having a disability doesn’t necessarily increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. However, it is reported that certain individuals may be at a higher risk due to conditions related to their disabilities. For example, those who are unable to communicate and those who are required to meet with providers in person have a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 or being unable to communicate potential exposure.
With these thoughts in mind, some parents may choose to continue remote learning while others may be transitioning their children back to an in-person environment, depending on each child’s individual condition, needs, and level of disability.
Creating a Transition Plan for In-Person Learning
All parents sending their children back to school should anticipate a transition period. After spending time learning remotely, students will need to adjust to going back to school in-person, especially with the new COVID-19 safety guidelines put in place. This adjustment may be greater for students with disabilities, who may have missed out on the aforementioned school-based services, such as counseling or speech therapy, and may have a more difficult time adjusting emotionally and socially to the new normal. Parents and faculty should be prepared to support the student during this adjustment period and have a plan to guide the student through the process.
By working together with your child’s school, other educators, and your pediatrician, you can create a plan that will facilitate a smooth transition back to school for your child while ensuring their safety. As students with disabilities may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and may need special accommodations, the first step is to contact the child’s pediatrician and school to ensure that all unique medical needs can be accommodated.
For students K-12, parents should also update the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP, which is part of the support provided to students with disabilities by the IDEA, consists of both an evaluation of the student and the creation of an educational program that will accommodate the child’s needs while providing them with the best opportunity for success. In order to ensure everybody’s safety during the pandemic, the IEP evaluation for eligible students and meetings between the parents and the IEP team may be conducted remotely. Parents will also be able to provide their consent of the evaluation and related services for public agencies via an electronic or digital signature.
In addition to the evaluation, any changes such as a regression of skills, modified or additionally required special education services, or a change of placement resulting from the disruption of in-person schooling should be noted and addressed in the updated IEP. If the student received services from a new provider while learning remotely, reports or recommendations from these providers may also be helpful in creating a successful educational program.
Practice COVID-19 Precautions
Parents can also create a safe transition back to the classroom by incorporating COVID-19 precautions into the child’s daily routine. This could include practicing washing their hands for 20 seconds, coughing and sneezing into their elbow, taking their temperature, mask wearing, and avoiding touching their face. By practicing these habits regularly, parents can decrease the risk of COVID-19 exposure not only for their child but for other students and staff members, and make continuing these precautions in school easier. Visual checklists or using stories to explain the importance of these precautions or unfamiliar concepts such as social distancing may also be helpful for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
In some cases, a specific safety precaution may not be feasible for the student. For example, a student who relies on lipreading to communicate may not be able to wear a mask, or a student may need assistance to wash their hands. In cases like this, parents can work with teachers, school administrators, and a healthcare provider to consider alternatives or provide accommodations. Parents can also communicate with the school to learn ahead of time what additional changes have been made, such as new physical barriers like sneeze guards, one-way routes in hallways, or new transportation measures, in order to better prepare the student for these changes.
A successful transition from remote learning to in-person learning can be made with support from all parties involved with the student’s education. Proactively creating a program that accommodates the student’s needs, practicing safety precautions, and continued communication between parents and educators can ease the student’s return to in-person schooling so that they can continue to safely receive support and opportunities for success.
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