Learning to adjust: Students with extra needs face pandemic challenges

  • Brady LePage, 13, of South Hadley, during his remote civics class. He has set up a space for himself at his home while his sister, Bridget LePage, 10, works upstairs. Their mother, Molly, is at home as well. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brady LePage, 13, of South Hadley, during his remote civics class. He has set up a space for himself at his home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bridget,10, and Brady LePage, 13, of South Hadley, took a lunch and recess from remote school on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brady LePage, 13, of South Hadley, during his remote civics class. He has set up a space for himself at his home while his sister, Bridget LePage, 10, works upstairs. Their mother, Molly, is at home as well. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brady LePage, 13, of South Hadley, sits at the table and eats lunch with his mother, Molly, and sister Bridget, 10, in the sunroom as the children take a lunch and recess from remote schooling Nov. 5. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alice Hawley, 17, and her mother, Evie Hawley, sit on their front steps with their dog Melody during a break from Alice’s schoolday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Evie Hawley and her daughter, Alice Hawley, play with their dog Melody during a break in Alice’s school day at their home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alice Hawley, 17, and her mother, Evie Hawley, sit on their front steps with their dog Melody during a break from Alice’s school day. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alice Hawley, 17, and her mother, Evie Hawley sit on their front steps with their dog Melody during a break from Alice’s school day. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2020 8:00:28 AM
Modified: 11/21/2020 8:00:07 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — When COVID-19 first hit the United States last spring and schools across the country moved online, middle schooler Brady LePage was happy to be at home — at first.

“For the first couple days, it was fun: ‘Oh, yay, I’m at home,” he recalled. “After a few days, it kind of got old.”

Brady, 13, is now in eighth grade at Michael E. Smith Middle School, and his school days are still fully remote. It’s working better than it did in the spring, he said, but it’s not ideal. As he put it: “Pandemics and puberty don’t mix at all.”

Brady has Asperger’s syndrome and sensory processing disorder, according to his mother, Molly LePage, and he has an individualized education program (IEP). “Where at school you have your IEP and you know the services,” she said, “now he’s really navigating his services.” Including taking movement breaks, which help him concentrate.

He gets help from a paraprofessional in school. When school was in-person before COVID-19 hit, he would just approach the paraprofessional in the classroom when he needed help. But doing that through an online platform is not as easy. The paraprofessionals, “they can’t be as helpful — and it’s not their fault,” Brady said.

School amid the pandemic has been challenging for families, students, teachers and administrators alike, but it can be especially difficult for students who need extra support or in-person instruction to learn. In many districts, students with individualized education programs are prioritized, and what school looks like for them varies.

Those who have IEPs have “gone through a formal process of being found eligible for receiving special education services. Their IEP is a legal contract that defines the types of supports and instruction that they are entitled to based on their disability and their needs,” said Pam Plumer, the Northampton Public Schools director of student services. As the name suggests, IEPs are individualized for each student, she explained. Supports can include help developing communications skills, mobility skills and reading.

There is a “really wide range,” Plumer said. “Some students have may be just one half-hour session of speech each week, and some students have many hours of services in many areas.”

“I think it’s a challenge for everyone who has a child receiving services,” said LePage, who is also the co-chair of the South Hadley Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said of school amid the pandemic. Particularly for younger students, she noted, “It’s been shown the earlier you get services, the better off you are.”

Some people receive services that must be adapted to an online format, such as physical therapy. “In talking with families of younger children here in South Hadley, it really falls to the parent to really become that physical therapist, that occupational therapist,” LePage said.

South Hadley students won’t be going back to in-person school this calendar year, the School Committee decided earlier this month, which LePage said was disappointing.

On Nov. 9, 148 students were able to come back into school. That included fewer than 100 special education students, according to Beth Cooke, director of student services in the South Hadley Schools. A case of COVID-19 at Mosier Elementary School sent those elementary students back to remote learning earlier this week. The school was cleaned and the high-need students have since returned, according to School Committee Chair Kyle Belanger.

“The students that came back now, and in our first cohort, are the students that we considered ‘high needs,’ that have significant and complex needs or disabilities,” Cooke said. “That was determined by their IEP.”

Therapy can be hard to do remotely, but “some of our speech and language pathologists are saying they are working with students and parents on these skills,” Cooke said, “which they are seeing carry over in the home.”

Cooke has heard from parents who want their kids back in school. “I know that parents are worried about their own child, and I’m worrying about 425 children,” she said, referring to the students in the district with IEPs, “and what’s best for all of them. That’s been a challenge. We’re not randomly prioritizing certain students. We’re really trying to do what’s best for our highest-needs kids.”

“If we could bring every student back safely, I think we would,” she said. “We realize there are more students that are struggling to learn remotely and that need to be in front of their teacher. That’s our next phase.”

Problem solving

Although school started remotely for the more than 2,500 students in Northampton Public Schools, some prioritized students were able to come in person for services. There are more than 200 prioritized students — including those with IEPs, English language learners, and students experiencing homelessness or in foster care — who come in person for services at district schools, according Plumer.

However, some prioritized students haven’t been able to come into the building for services because of classroom capacity limits. A section of a memoradum of agreement with the Northampton Association of School Employees sets occupancy limits for classrooms based on how well each room is ventilated.

Some families of prioritized students initially opted for remote learning, “but for a variety of reasons asked to switch to in-person after the start of the year,” Plumer wrote in an email to the Gazette. “In many cases, that was able to occur, but there are still some students who are hoping to be able to participate in-person, where we did not originally have the space.”

HEPA filters have been installed in the school buildings’ ventilation systems; the district has some filters in classrooms and more on the way, according to Superintendent John Provost. With more filters, Plumer is hopeful the space issue will be solved, she said. Many students do receive their IEP services remotely, she noted.

Students with 504 plans get accommodations, such as extra time and modified assignments, and are mostly not in-person, Plumer said.

Since March, Plumer’s job has “been just nonstop, because we’re constantly having to problem-solve,” she said. Evaluations of students with IEPs, which are required to happen every three years, got behind after school shut down in March, for example. “Our faculty has a real significant backlog of testing that should have happened in the spring,” she said.

Many students who typically receive in-home services beyond what the schools offer are struggling to get that support because of the pandemic, Plumer said. “Students who have been diagnosed with autism can access in-home supports through their insurance, but finding agencies that are providing those supports in person in people’s homes has been a big challenge.”

She noted, “It’s not the same for a behavioral specialist to Zoom with a family as it is to go into the home and provide that service.”

Goals

Evie Huguenin Hawley’s daughter, Alice, is a 17-year-old junior in the Northampton High School in the GOALS program, which stands for gaining opportunities through active learning and support, and has an IEP.

With the shutdown, Hawley worries her daughter, who had a stroke at birth and has Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, is missing out on pre-vocational training through school.

“I worry about her transition to adulthood, and COVID is affecting that,” Hawley said. “I would like to know she can be in some sort of day job, part time, or a day program. Can she get on the PVTA by herself?”

“The most important piece of Alice’s education right now is the pre-vocational training,” her mother said.

In the past, Alice restocked shelves in the school cafeteria, and Hawley hoped an internship through school would get her out into the community.

“At the same time, because she has physical disabilities, it’s a time to practice with adaptive equipment,” Hawley said, adding that because of the stroke, it’s difficult for Alice to hold a broom and dust pan, for example.

Getting the internship program fully running is a priority, Plumer said.

“That has been slow to start because of the fact that we were focused on making sure in-district services were happening at first, and the truth is, it’s taken awhile for these outside agencies to commit to providing any in-person,” she said.

Some students have been doing internships, such as working outdoors at a farm. “We’re trying to develop more connections with places that are physically open,” Plumer said.

As the district moves into hybrid learning starting Nov. 30, Alice, who is immunocompromised, will be staying at home. Hawley worries about her getting sick.

“If she were to get COVID,” she said, “she would get hospitalized.” If there were a ventilator shortage, Hawley worries Alice may not get one over someone who is able-bodied.

Alice has been going into school for physical and occupational therapy, as she is a prioritized student. “I feel OK about that,” Hawley said. “The adults aren’t going to be the ones not wearing their masks and washing their hands … I think that’s a relatively low risk.”

Hawley also has a son in the eighth grade at JFK Middle School in Northampton, and she herself is in the University of Massachusetts Amherst accelerated nursing program. With these responsibilities, she said, she is stretched thin. Hawley first spoke to the Gazette in October, the day before a mid-term, while she was in line to get tested for COVID-19 — a regular precaution.

Though mostly remote school is difficult, and they are spending a lot of time at home, Hawley described her daughter as “a party waiting to happen — she’s fun.”

Other students with IEPs are doing better with remote school than in person right now. Belanger, chair of the South Hadley School Committee, got involved because of his son Milo’s IEP. Several years ago, Milo, who has ADHD, was starting out with his IEP when Belanger came to a realization: “Oh my gosh, someone on this committee needs to be able to speak to this experience.”

“What I didn’t imagine was three years later there would be a global pandemic,” he said.

In some ways, remote school is working better for Milo, now a fifth grader at Michael E. Smith Middle School, who receives services such as occupational and speech therapy.

“Part of his ADHD is he’s a doodler — he doodles and draws nonstop,” Belanger said. “In a traditional class setting, that’s not allowed — it’s seen as not listening.” But at home, he’s doodling while in class and staying focused, Belanger said.

Belanger’s third grader, who doesn’t have an IEP, is struggling, he said. “He enjoys the performative dimension of the American education system,” Belanger said. Now that school is remote, “no one’s jaw is on the ground when he finishes science first anymore.”

Milo will continue school at home — Belanger’s family has decided to not send their children back to school in person when the opportunity arises.

Though Milo is doing well, Belanger said, “I also know that there are a number of students whose IEPs and disabilities are profound. And for them, my experience is fully irrelevant.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com. Staff writer Jacquelyn Voghel contributed to this report.


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