Pandemic underscores challenges in special education

VIDEO: Pandemic underscores challenges in virtual learning

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - After a year of the pandemic, schools are starting to get back to normal with more and more switching to full, in-person classes. While virtual learning has been going by the wayside, new infections has led to targeted shutdowns of individual classes. The occasional week of virtual classes may seem like a minor irritant for some students and parents but for kids with special needs, it can be particularly difficult.

Kat Bodkin is Executive Director of the Lowcountry Autism Foundation – a nonprofit serving around 3,000 families. She is also the parent of an autistic child.

“He went virtual and he just kind of shut down because he did not understand seeing his teachers on virtual and we saw a lot of behavioral changes and really, frankly, a lot of the students can’t sit that long, can’t stay focused and engaged that long,” Bodkin said.

Routine is particularly important to kid with autism according to Bodkin. She says breaking up the regular schedule can be difficult and confusing.

“They thrive on consistency,” Bodkin said. “When the pandemic hit and virtual school hit, all of those things kind of dropped a bomb on what they are used to. That’s really difficult. Transitioning and things changing takes time for our kids.”

Every child is different and generalizing an entire group of students with different levels of need is a disservice to the community. It’s that very challenge that makes virtual learning difficult.

“If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism,” Bodkin said. “Some kids are at grade level and they are doing well with virtual school because they struggle with social skills and being around others. They are really enjoying being at home with their virtual learning.”

Shea Likens is the Assistant Project Director of the Parent Training and Resource Center in the Family Resource Center for Disabilities and Special Needs. She says many special needs students who are succeeding in virtual schooling are receiving the one-on-one attention they may need.

“They’ve been able to be in that one-on-one environment with a parent who may have the privilege of being there with them and they are benefiting,” Likens said, noting not every parent can stay home with their child.

Likens says school offers students with special needs far more than general education. They provide an important environment for social development as well as professionals that help with specific struggles. Those are things that virtual schooling makes significantly more difficult.

“They don’t get that nurturing relationship with a favorite teacher or a favorite speech therapist or favorite occupational therapist,” Likens said. “They haven’t had a chance to find a preferred adult to let out some of their emotions. It’s been very much a challenge.”

Students with special needs have Individualized Education Programs or IEP’s. Likens says meeting the goals of those IEP’s can be especially difficult in the virtual era. There are tools and rights associated with IEP’s.

“It is vital that they [parents] understand their plans and their rights,” Likens said. “We want to be available to parents to give them accurate, impartial information about special education services.”

You can find details on the services provided by the Family Resource Center here. LAF also provides services at no cost for families with autism. You can find that information here.

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