With Maine students all learning from home, Jodie Hall is serving as behavioral support professional and mother at the same time to her son Andrew, a Greely High School sophomore with Down syndrome. Courtesy Jodie Hall

NORTH YARMOUTH — The closure of Maine schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing students to learn remotely from home, can present its fair share of challenges. But parents and administrators are finding that the impact on special education students – who rely on the structure, one-on-one support, and social interactions that the classroom provides – is particularly significant.

Jodie Hall of North Yarmouth can attest to that. Her son Andrew has Down syndrome and is a sophomore at Greely High School.

Remote learning via the internet is “a great alternative in a pinch right now, so I really appreciate the effort, but it’s nowhere near the kind of support and structure that he normally receives within the school day,” she said. “He’s a complex kiddo with complex diagnoses, and when we’re looking at the day-to-day structure which is normally provided by the school, he’s really missing that lack of consistency and predictability.”

Andrew is involved in several Google Hangout virtual online sessions each day, but “it’s changing,” Hall said. “It’s changing who’s involved when, and what they’re doing, and the times of day. So for him in particular, that’s a really challenging bit. Which means that accessing new learning is just that much more of a challenge for him.”

Barbara Gunn, director of student services with the Brunswick School Department, said “one of the big questions right now with what we’re providing (is) are we trying to maintain skills, or are we trying to introduce new learning. And I think … most people are trying to maintain skills.”

Brunswick has 415 students identified through its special education program, about 18% of its district-wide student body, Gunn said.

Activities are being sent home or emailed to elementary school parents, and junior and high school students use Google Hangouts for their classes. Through that online service teachers, educational technicians, and occupational, physical and speech therapy providers are working with pupils, although not at the level the classroom can provide, Gunn said.

In cases where a student doesn’t have internet access, Technology Director Sue Woodhams is working to set up mobile hot spots at their homes and deliver Google Chromebook computers, Gunn said.

Westbrook-based Woodfords Family Services, which has four satellite locations throughout Maine, offers behavioral health, clinical and educational programs to more than 1,500 people of all ages who have autism, developmental or intellectual disabilities, or mental health diagnoses. The agency has a preschool for children with autism and other disabilities to help them transition into public kindergarten. It also partners with school districts, with staff providing student support in classrooms, according to Kerry de Bree, director of development and strategic initiatives.

Many parents have contacted Woodfords in search of supplemental programming, and the agency is using live “telehealth” options to offer support via telecommunications technology, de Bree said. Woodfords, which delivers instructional materials to homes in advance, typically works with about 170 children, 95 of them now remotely.

“It’s not full-time programming,” de Bree said. “Typically kids would receive six hours of preschool services a day; right now they’re receiving anywhere from one to three hours.”

“Nobody is providing a full-day instruction,” Gunn said. “… We’re trying to provide what we can, and what’s appropriate right now.”

That extra time provides ed techs with professional development opportunities.

“There are lots of things out there that now they … have the time to do, (for which) we could not find the time,” Gunn said.

Managing how Andrew spends his time while she continues to work her own job is a key objective for Hall these days.

“We have devised a daily schedule for Andrew to help continue his educational program and avoid too much regression,” she said. “That being said, we realize that regression is inevitable for him without the daily structure of school.”

Regression for Andrew means increased levels of anxiety and confusion, which can inhibit his access to learning, Hall explained. With one goal in Andrew’s Individualized Education Program being to develop appropriate social interactions and relationships, she is concerned that he will “backslide,” and lose the confidence and skill development practices he’s gained at school.

To avoid that during summer vacation, Andrew takes part in Extended School Year services, which are meant to stave off regression rather than promoting new learning or progress toward goals, Hall said.

“All kids that come back, we’re going to have to do progress monitoring,” Gunn said. “Because all kids are going to regress.”

This summer’s session may draw a greater number of students and need to be expanded, she said.

Deb Mullis, director of student support services for Portland Public Schools, is planning for the same.
“Depending what the summer looks like, we are planning on more robust summer school or extended school year services,” she said. Regardless of the circumstances, “(w)e are still charged with providing a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities.”
Of Portland’s 6,750 students, 16% receive special education services.

De Bree called regression “a tremendous concern for us. We provide very intensive services that … need to be that intense to work.”

Telehealth isn’t an equal replacement, particularly since intensive one-to-one work over video for six hours isn’t realistic, she said. But it’s “simply the best we can do right now. We’re continuing to work on ways we can enhance the service delivery.”

With Andrew requiring constant one-on-one support, Hall said she’s learning fast how to juggle being his educational technician, behavioral support professional and mother all at the same time. On top of that, she is a parent trainer with the Maine Parent Federation – an organization that connects parents of children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. The federation offers support through “resource referral, our parent workshops, dissemination of information, and our peer-to-peer mentoring program,” Hall said.

The federation is providing parents guidance about what services they should expect schools to provide, she said.

The lack of social opportunities for Andrew is another concern of Hall’s. “Right now, obviously this is a struggle for everybody, but for kiddos who don’t have natural social interactions with peers, it’s even more of a struggle, and even greater isolation occurs.”

Hall and other parents of special education students are supporting each other remotely and keep in touch via the Marco Polo video messaging phone application. The app allows Andrew to interact with other students, too, and continue social skill development in a non-traditional way, she said.

Parents bring their children to medical appointments and therapies, “but we’re not the ones who typically sit by their side during the school day, and provide that kind of academic support,” Hall said. “So that has been eye-opening for a lot of our parents.”

Hall has gotten a stronger sense of how much work goes into special education, and said it is “heartwarming” to see how invested teachers are in their students.

And when the pandemic has finally passed, and Andrew returns to school, Hall said she knows that “those people are going to be there to catch him, and they’re going to be there to help him get back on track.”

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