Distance learning a challenge for special ed students and their families

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Playing in the finished basement of his family’s Hudson, Wisconsin, home, Waylon Hendricks is a busy active 4 and a half-year-old, with a ready smile. 

“It’s a fire truck day today,” his mother Michelle says with a grin. “He’s got some trucks he’ll sit on, zoom around here. Blocks, like to build towers and stuff.”

Waylon has been non-verbal since birth. 

Before the pandemic, he had been enrolled in a pre-K individualized education program, or IEP for short, at Hudson’s River Crest Elementary School.

“The teachers who work with my child are amazing at what they do,” Hendricks declares. 

She says Waylon had daycare, one-on-one personalized attention, two teachers and just three classmates. 

Hendricks says he was thriving in a structured, well-supervised environment. 

"They had it set up where the bus would come, pick him up from daycare, and take him to school,” she explains. “He would receive speech, physical and occupational therapy at school, and he had a special needs teacher.”

Then, on March 18th, everything changed, when Wisconsin Gov.Tony Evers issued a ‘safer at home’ order. 
“Issuing a safer at home order is not something I like to do, it's not something I wanted to do,” the Governor declared during his announcement. 

“He was doing really well, making progress, and all of a sudden COVID happened,” Hendricks says. “They closed the schools.”

Hendricks, a full-time accountant, says the school district set up remote learning right away. 

But she says she and her husband Nate, a welder, also working full-time, were ill-prepared to teach their son. 

“Like if I were to sit with him, even then, that's kind of a challenge, because I'm not a therapist," Hendricks says quietly. 

The Hendricks family isn’t alone. 

There are more than 250,000 special education students in Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

700 in the Hudson district alone. 

In a statement, a district spokesperson said, “it’s impossible to replicate the services” provided in classrooms, but is using virtual instruction tools and video conferencing to connect with special education students. 

"Our children's development is critical,” says Karri Colberg, a Wisconsin mother who founded a 300-member autism parent support group. “We don’t want to put that on hold during the pandemic.”

Colberg says the biggest challenge for special education parents is transitioning from hands-on to remote learning. 

“A lot of clinicians in schools and special education teachers are doing stuff online and zoom,” she says. “Trying to walk parents through the instruction, or sending packets home for parents to work on."

But even with those tools, Hendricks says she doesn’t have the time or training to give Waylon the 12 to 16 hours of weekly instruction he was getting at school. 

"He's already behind developmentally, and they're trying to get him caught up by doing these extra services,” she explains. “Now that the extra services are gone, he's just continually behind.”

Julia Hartwig, the Director of Special Education for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, agrees that the pandemic has presented challenges. 

"It has been a scramble. It has been all hands on deck,” she says. “Access to technology certainly varies from district to district." 

Hartwig says the state is issuing guidelines for teleservices and virtual IEP meetings while encouraging districts to make plans for the summer and fall, and work with local officials on safe health practices. 

"The inequities and opportunity gaps are really magnified at this time,” Hartwig says. “So many districts are facing challenges with that." 

Hendricks says at this point, Waylon has missed more than 100 hours of class. 

She worries about his future. 

“That's what makes me sad,” she says. “If this keeps happening, how much further behind is he going to get?”

But recently, Hendricks got some good news from Hudson District Officials. 

She says Waylon will be able to attend on-site summer school. 

Six of the eight days he’ll be in class, he’ll have an hour’s worth of individualized instruction with a therapist. 

Waylon’s teachers will have to reassess him in the fall, to see where to go next

For Hendricks, it’s the best news she’s heard in months. 

"There’s a lot of other kids that I’m sure are struggling with remote learning,” Hendricks says. “We just want him to have an equal opportunity with the rest of the kids, and be able to learn and grow.”