As Montana schools begin to provide education remotely in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus, parents will be serving as their child’s co-teacher at home. For many, that’s a large undertaking, but it’s even more of a challenge for parents of students with special needs.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Sherry Kirksey is working on math with her grandson Noah who is a fifth grader in the West Valley School District. This will be the new norm as schools in Montana remain closed at least until April 10.
His mom, Kelly Fisk will also be playing the role of teacher for her three kids as she takes a pause from her wedding photography business. She explains that Noah will take some extra attention as he has a chromosome disorder.
“The medical term is 15 Q 13.3 micro-deletion syndrome where he is missing parts of his chromosome,” she explained. “He has multiple seizures a day. He has severe learning disabilities, low IQ. Yeah, just a very complicated, kid.”
Fisk says keeping Noah on track with school work at home can be a struggle in normal times, but now with him learning full-time at the kitchen table, there’s more than just homework to consider.
Noah receives specialized curriculum under what’s known as an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. The federally mandated plan outlines not only his academic and life skill goals like learning 100 new words or understanding social boundaries, but the supports that are supposed to get him there.
“So he receives X amount of minutes of speech and OT, occupational therapy, every week,” Fisk says. “So, they take him out of class and he goes and meets with a specialist. So that will not happen while we're shut down.”
To be clear, Fisk says her son’s school is trying as best as it can to get creative with services and she’s willing to be flexible. But she won’t be able to carry out a lot of things outlined in her son’s plan if the services are completely unavailable.
“Even if I could get him to do homework, I am definitely not qualified as a speech and OT specialist,” she said.
For now, schools are outlining the broad strokes of how they will deliver education and other services in plans ordered by Gov. Steve Bullock. Those are due by Monday in order to maintain state funding. As of Thursday afternoon, about a fourth of Montana’s 400 school districts had finalized their plans with local school boards and the governor’s office.
But those plans will provide more guidance than specific direction to IEP teams who will make specific decisions about how special education will be delivered on a case-by-case basis.
Some of those decisions might be tough and not everything will be available to all students with IEPs.
In the Kalispell School District, Jen Stein is the principal of Edgerton Elementary and also a parent to a special needs child. She says that any drop in behavioral supports, consistent one-on-one instruction or accommodations for physical disabilities will be hard for families to swallow.
“Those are the kids that I am really concerned about as far as not having the schedule, not having all those supports,” she said. “If that part of their being is struggling, then catching up or coming back to do academics will be even more challenging.”
Kalispell Public Schools Special Education Director Sara Cole says the district has a little over 700 students with identified disabilities, and she explains that the district is trying to deliver as many services as it can online or remotely, but there are limits.
“We might have kids on the autism spectrum, students with down syndrome, students with pretty significant intellectual impairments who might not be able to sustain attending to direct instruction provided via Google Hangouts or on a device,” she said.
Some students might not do well with working through paper packets at home with their parents either.
Cole explains that if students with IEPs can’t receive all of their regular services during school closures, their teams will have to assess the situation when school doors are open again.
“So that’s the population of students that we’re really going to, when school is back in session, really do some assessment and then pull IEP teams together to see if there’s any compensatory services that we need to provide,” she said.
Compensatory services essentially means making up for what students may have missed while a particular service is unavailable.
That’s what the U.S. Department of Education is telling districts to focus on for now.
Montana Office of Public Instruction Special Education Director Jenifer Cline says the issue is it’s entirely unknown how long school doors will be closed for and just how much flexibility there is in federal law when it comes to not providing certain services under the circumstances.
Cline says there’s also questions about if, when and how students should be assessed when they do return to school
“The federal government right now is looking at the law to determine what ability they have to give flexibility to districts, within the agency itself, the Office of Special Education Programs, or does something need an act of Congress,” she explained.
Disability advocates like Disability Rights Montana are watching and working with OPI, but most of all they’re pushing for flexibility with families during this unprecedented time.
Fisk says as a parent, she understands that school will look different this year and maybe next year as well.
“But I think that they'll do what they need to to make sure that the kids get caught up,” she said. “The unknowns are still kind of scary though. Like it's just, it's just a waiting game and no one likes a waiting game.”
Just how long that waiting game will last, nobody knows.