Educators said special needs students will receive individual accommodations this fall, but parents are worried about the safety of students who are at high risk for COVID-19 complications and the effectiveness of online classes and therapies.

Jessica Richardson said sending her special needs son to in-person school could be detrimental to his health, but he may not receive the education he needs from virtual schooling.

“It is a very tough decision,” Richardson said.

Richardson’s son will be a fourth grader at Oak Park Elementary. Richardson said he experiences seizures and is at risk due to his weakened immune system. She said she’s also worried her son could catch the virus and pass it to his teachers and staff.

“I believe that the students need to be in the classroom because it is hard for special needs kids to get what they need over the computer, and therapists can’t do what they need (online). Falling behind is my biggest concern but going in the classroom I don’t think is an option,” Richardson said.

Jonathan Peterson, who has a kindergartner and fourth grader at Frances Nungester Elementary and a second grader at Chestnut Grove Elementary, said one of his children will participate in blended learning and the others will learn in-person. Decatur City Schools will offer traditional, virtual and blended options this fall, according to its reopening plan which was released July 21.

The blended option permits students to transition between virtual and in-person instruction without having to switch teachers or fall out of sync with the curricula.

One of Peterson’s children has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and struggled with learning in the spring. He said his daughter associates being home with play time, making it difficult to focus on schoolwork. For this reason, Peterson said she will attend school in person, along with his fourth grader.

However, he is concerned about the safety of his other daughter if she attends traditional school.

“The one I’m most concerned with takes two immunosuppressive medications weekly, so she has a compromised immune system,” he said. "After speaking with her specialty doctor that's over her, I think blended will be her best option. That way she can attend school and if things get bad I can pull her to virtual."

Stefanie Underwood, special services supervisor for Decatur City Schools, said all students, including special needs students, can choose between traditional, blended and virtual schooling, and special needs students will have added flexibility provided by their individualized education plans (IEPs). The deadline to choose the learning format was Monday, but DCS has said it is accepting late registrations choosing the type of instruction. 

Special needs students may face challenges that the general population will not this year, according to Underwood. For example, some students have sensory sensitivities that prevent them from wearing masks, and some have compromised immune systems.

“One of the things we’re really going to stress to parents is we are truly building an individualized plan,” Underwood said.

She said face shields and desk shields that all kindergarten, first and second grade students in the district will receive may be ordered for special needs students as needed.

Underwood said the Special Services Department is looking into creative alternatives that allow children to see their therapists in-person while reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19. She said one option may be bringing students in individually for physical therapy.

“In the world of special ed, we’re very fortunate, because we have IEPs,” Underwood said. “We can write that into a plan.”

Underwood said virtual learning may be a challenge for some special needs students. Some services, like physical therapy, cannot be easily provided through a computer, and the technology may be hard for some children to use.

Underwood said parents should consider the individual needs of their children when deciding whether to keep their children home or send them to school in person.

“I want parents to know that we’re going to reach out to them, and talk through all of these different scenarios, virtual, blended, traditional, and answer their questions,” she said.

Underwood said parents can expect to receive phone calls from their teachers beginning in early August: “It might be that they have so many questions they would like a meeting, and we’re certainly going to be willing to do that.”

Morgan County Schools’ director of special education Lana Tew said the biggest challenge for educators is the possibility of a sudden change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. She said Morgan County Schools has a plan in place, but an order from the governor, state superintendent, or department of public health could change those plans in an instant.

“Everything is evolving and changing even as we speak,” Tew said.

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