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For Anchorage special education students, school closures have an outsized impact

Danna Hoellering pushes her six-year-old grandson Daniel on a swing during a visit to a neighborhood park on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

It is Daniel Hoellering’s second year in kindergarten at Klatt Elementary School in South Anchorage, but he hasn’t been inside his special education classroom with his teacher or friends for eight months.

Anchorage schools shuttered in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Daniel is one of more than 6,000 special education students who were suddenly cut off from the in-person support that the Anchorage School District usually provides. School has been online-only since.

Daniel has ADHD and level-two autism, which means he is neither high functioning nor severely autistic. He’s full of wild, 6-year-old-boy energy.

Daniel loves puzzles, games and playing on the jungle gym at the park near his house. And he hates — really, really hates — sitting through his daily Zoom lessons, according to his grandmother and legal guardian, Danna Hoellering.

Danna Hoellering shares a moment with her six-year-old grandson Daniel on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Many problems that Anchorage families have faced during school closures — like struggling with Zoom classes, falling behind, finding child care and children lacking social interaction — are amplified for families of special education students.

The district’s distance learning program in spring was a “complete and utter failure” for Daniel, Hoellering said. “He basically regressed.”

Special education students like Daniel had been slated to start back in schools on Nov. 16. But superintendent Deena Bishop has postponed the plan, citing the escalating pandemic and understaffed, overburdened local hospitals.

It is the third such postponement so far this school year.

Losing critical ground

Hoellering said she watched with alarm as Alaska’s new daily case counts skyrocketed in recent weeks, reaching a new record of more than 700 on Saturday.

Although not surprised by the superintendent’s announcement, Hollering said it thrust her family into limbo, with no clear metric or timeline for when Daniel might go back to school.

“They yank it away, but they don’t say when they’re going to be able to give it back to you,” Hoellering said. “At what point does my child get to go back to school?”

Krista James, a special education specialist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said most families of high-needs children with disabilities have been deeply affected by school closures, as daily routines and in-person support all but vanished.

Once a child with a disability gains a skill, it’s critical that they aren’t allowed to regress, James said.

“If they miss even a few weeks of school in the summertime, then it’s like we’re going to have to spend twice as much time getting that skill back,” James said.

Daniel usually gets one-on-one help from a teacher and two to three aides in a special education classroom he shares with about nine other students, Hoellering said.

Now, his mornings are instead cluttered with distance-learning Zoom lessons that he can’t sit still through, and hard-won social and academic skills are slipping away.

Hoellering worries that Daniel may have to repeat a third year of kindergarten.

Special education students receive extra support from public schools, laid out in a plan called an IEP, or individualized education plan. It often includes different kinds of therapies and specific goals for each child for education and behavior.

While most of those services have still been offered by the district over Zoom, for kids like Daniel, therapy by video conferencing is pointless, Hoellering said.

“As a parent of a child who is slipping through the cracks and not being serviced as he should be with an IEP — I feel like this school district has failed my child,” Hoellering said.

Thomas and Danna Hoellering walk with their six-year-old grandson Daniel after a visit to a neighborhood park on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

When the school district went virtual, families flocked to private therapy centers that were still operating in person. It took months to get Daniel into a slot for occupational therapy.

Amy Lacher, a behavior analyst who works with special education students in their homes in both the Anchorage and Mat-Su school districts, said she has seen some children “seriously regressing.”

“Many of our kids right now are really struggling with speech language that they’ve lost,” James said.

Some had been on the brink of learning to talk when school closed, she said.

But some students are losing more ground than others, Lacher said. She thinks it is because the quality of virtual education is varied, depending on differences in teachers, school resources and a family’s own resources.

Hoellering has hired a tutor, a former teacher, who helps Daniel twice a week. It’s costly — they’ve had to pull money from savings — but it’s the only thing helping Daniel make progress, she said.

Some parents quit jobs to support their kids

Kayla McDonogh, special education teacher at Lake Otis Elementary, said that despite the immense challenges of distance learning for her students, she has also seen many moments of success.

Lacher said one particularly dedicated special education teacher she knows delivers weekly bins of hands-on learning activities to kids.

McDonogh, with the help of a behavior specialist, does weekly training with parents to help them learn the strategies she uses in the classroom.

Still, for many parents, finding enough time is a challenge. Hoellering and her husband work full time. Daniel needs constant supervision and help during Zoom sessions, and it’s nearly impossible to balance their jobs with his schooling, she said.

Thick stacks of worksheets often remain mostly untouched, Hoellering said. Daniel has trouble with fine motor skills. Getting him to practice writing is a struggle, she said.

James said that it’s often not feasible for both parents to continue working while a severely disabled child is going to school online. Many families are single-parent homes.

“It just takes so much time to get them through the online school day,” James said.

Tarlesha Wayne, senior director of special education for the Anchorage School District, said that she has seen some parents and caregivers who have had to quit a job in order to support their child.

For some, it’s because some parents don’t have access to support like a learning “pod,” a tutor. For others, it’s because the child might have a disability that’s so severe, he or she can’t go to regular child care.

The department has adapted lessons, therapy sessions and one-on-one meetings for virtual settings, and Anchorage School District teachers have put countless hours into the effort.

But although students and teachers are getting better with online education, Wayne has also heard from many teachers that Zoom is not working for their students.

“For those families that cannot support students, that becomes an equity and access issue,” Wayne said. “And that is why we’re pushing so hard to get all the things that we possibly can in place to get our students back into school.”

Weighing the risks

But that effort is complicated by COVID-19 risks and the amount of one-on-one help necessary in special education classrooms.

Some students need help doing things like going to the bathroom. Some can’t wear masks and must use a face shield instead, and seeing facial expressions is critically important for others.

There has been pushback from some special education teachers who fear opening their classrooms will put themselves and their vulnerable students at too great a risk.

Daniel Hoellering climbs on playground equipment on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

When Anchorage schools do finally open, families like the Hoellerings must choose whether or not to send their children back. Many special education students are also medically fragile or at high risk of complications from the virus.

“It’s a really hard toss-up between education and regression versus physical health safety,” Lacher said.

She worries that the many families who will stick with virtual learning will continue to see their children lose skills they learned before, she said.

For Daniel, the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks, Hoellering said.

“Hopefully the cases go down and people get smart and listen to their health professionals and listen to the advice being given to the public,” Hoellering said.

It’s long past time for get kids like Daniel to have a chance to be back in school, she said.

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