‘His face turns red and he withdraws’: Students with special needs struggle in COVID-19 learning environments

Reopening Southern Colorado Schools

COLORADO SPRINGS — Since the COVID-19 pandemic crept into Colorado last year, many school districts were forced to move classes online, rather than spending time with students in-person. It’s been a difficult situation for many students and their families, but it’s had an even bigger impact on kids who have additional or special needs.

FOX21 News spoke with school districts across Pueblo and El Paso Counties, asking about struggles they’ve overcome. We also spent time with families who have had to come up with alternative, sometimes pricey plans, to compensate for some of the services that have been unavailable due to COVID-19.

Some children do well with online learning, others can get distracted by the keyboard or the mouse, and still others may not have any interest in using a screen at all. But it’s an additional hurdle for those kids who have special needs.

FOX21 News posed the following questions to school districts in Southern Colorado:

  • How are students’ grades doing during the pandemic?
  • What struggles are teachers seeing the most during remote learning among students with disabilities/special needs?
  • Are the schools/teachers fulfilling IEPs (Individual Education Program)?
  • Are there programs/tutoring help for students who are regressing or getting behind because of the pandemic/elearning?
  • Are schools noticing a big increase in failing grades? How is it affecting students with disabilities? Students whose first language is NOT English? Low-income students? 
  • What about absences? Are there increases in absences from years past? Is there accountability to make up the work? If so, how?

To view the answers from each district, click on the respective downloadable link:

<<< Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 – did not respond to our request

<<< Academy School District 20 – still waiting for information

Map of School Districts within the counties

Jeff Hogan is concerned that his son, Ian, won’t have a functional, independent life, if he doesn’t get the services he needs at school. Ian is in eighth grade at Holmes Middle School in Colorado Springs School District 11.

According to Hogan, Ian was first put on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in kindergarten, but didn’t receive special needs services for five years. Hogan said it took the district a while to identify Ian’s specific needs. Hogan said he paid to have his son tested and that’s when they learned that Ian has severe dyslexia and severe expressive receptive language disorder.

“Like, if you were reading a book, it would look like hieroglyphics for him because his brain processes things differently,” Hogan explained. “Just to stay afloat he was working three times harder than most kids.”

Over the course of just one summer, once the family identified his needs, Hogan said Ian’s reading level doubled. Everything was working fine with the school system and Ian’s IEP, Hogan said, and then COVID landed in Colorado.

“When they don’t provide the services, they force you to spend more money to get it,” Hogan said.

Hogan explained that the school wanted him to sign his approval for Ian to learn remotely, but he refused to do so, he said, because he knew the IEP required in-person learning. Hogan fought that during the summer, asking for services back plus compensatory services, but the school wouldn’t agree.

Hogan said both the school board members and the district were pointing at one another. Hogan went to the state next, he said they requested a mediator in October.

“The federal government had pointed out that you can’t have blanket policy for the state or the district… You have to have what’s called ‘individual decision making.’ You have to look at the specifics of that child and determine whether that fits, but [the school wasn’t] going to consider anything beyond remote learning in the way they did it,” Hogan explained.

Hogan added that he isn’t against online learning. In fact, his other son attends an online charter school. But Ian has different needs. So, for now, he’s using an after school tutor who also works for District 11. Ian’s parents are paying about $1,800 a month for speech and reading tutors.   

“The school originally said he would never reach a third-grade level of reading and he is now at a 4th-grade level because of the tutors we’ve had,” Hogan added. “You have two types of parents now, there is ones that can afford to take their kids out of school and get them those services, and then there are the ones that don’t. And the ones that don’t are stuck.”

Hogan is hoping legislation will provide that money directly to families.

“I predict that if we don’t do something and get the kids, like my son, help, you are going to see a rise and dramatic escalation in suicide, drug overdose and use and people going to jail,” Hogan said. “We are abandoning kids – hundreds, if not thousands – of kids across this country whose parents can’t afford those services. And without those services, they will not be able to function in the world.”

His advice for other families dealing with this same issue is to pray, seek out any type of community support, and be patient. When Ian grows up, he says he wants to become a tank sergeant in the Army. Ian isn’t the only student who struggled academically this past year.

Jennifer Roysden’s 12-year-old son, Rueben, was diagnosed with Autism in December of 2009. She says he has significant delays in academics, social, and fine and gross motor skills. He is currently in sixth grade and reading at a 2.5 level. His writing is at a kindergarten level. He attends Mountain Vista Community School in the TAP program in Harrison District 2.

“As far as writing is concerned, they are working on him still writing his name, being able to write his address,” Roysden explained. “He struggles significantly with writing and it’s because of his low muscle tone and his fine motor skill delay.”

Ruben has been in-person since the beginning of the school year, but is still showing signs of regression, according to his teacher. There were three weeks where the school had to go into quarantine, so Roysden had to have her mother come from out of state to help. Her main concern is the social anxiety that her son has developed from not spending time with his peers.

“Before he would just be kind of awkward and try. Now his face turns red and he withdraws,” Roysden said. “His teacher stated in the IEP meeting that he had shown regression since he has been back and she has evaluated him in reading, writing, and math and definitely socially.”

Her other concern is his core classes like math, reading, and writing. She claims the school promises to hit math, reading, and writing harder until the end of the school year. However, she also plans to put Rueben in HillSprings Academy which is a nonprofit learning center that provides tuition-based educational intervention programs for students with learning differences and attention challenges. This will cost the family thousands of dollars as well.

“They go to school, they quarantine, they’re home, and now they are in front of a computer. So it’s this constant disconnect and lack of continuity of learning that makes it really challenging for a child with a disability,” Anne Hersom said.

Hersom is a developmental Interventionalist and Autism Specialist with The Resource Exchange. She said, typically, a child with autism does better with routine. Her advice for caregivers is to build resiliency.

“It’s doing the best we can within a situation is beyond our control. So, what are we doing to provide coping mechanisms,” Hersom explained. “How do you build resiliency within your family system, what does your individual family system look like? What does each individual within that family -how do they operate, what are their strengths? And so that is what we have to do, to the best of our ability. To find the areas that we can flourish in during a difficult time. That is challenging for all of us.”

As for Reuben, Roysden has high hopes for his future.

 “I know he will be ok, God has an amazing plan for his life and nothing can stop that,” Roysden added.

Early Intervention

Early Intervention (EI) is a state-funded coaching model that helps children from birth through three years old. Typically, therapists go into the homes and help guardians understand how to meet their child’s needs.

There are certain diagnoses which are auto qualifiers, or the child has to show a delay of 33% or greater in one of the following domains: cognition; language; social–emotional; gross or fine motor; self-help or adaptive skills. Each year they serve just over 1,000 children from birth to age three in El Paso, Teller, and Park Counties. Referrals can come from parents, pediatricians, or other providers.

“Birth through age five, the brain is growing up to 90%. So, for intervention it’s a critical time to do what we do for the child,” Hersom said.

During the pandemic, EI had to change its methods of treatments – moving to remote – just as schools had to adjust their learning platforms.

“This type of learning is not obviously the way we want to do it. We’d prefer to be in the home with the family, but we can definitely continue to do services and feel like we do well because it matches our model,” said Hersom. “We might be doing blocks, so I’ll make sure they have blocks on the other side and I have blocks. Sometimes that doesn’t work with a kiddo that is not interested in interacting with a screen, or it works a small amount of time. So, we still have to be very flexible with what we are doing.”

To help the guardians with the technology EI gives them a heads-up with what to expect prior to meetings. Some children respond better with the screen than other childrens.

“It encourages the parent to be very reflective on what they are doing and to understand if – maybe if they are trying something with their kiddo and it’s not working. So, we’ll talk through that and make accommodations,” Hersom added.

She advises parents to make sure their expectations are realistic, and adjusting them, when necessary, to reflect what your child is capable of accomplishing.

“That’s where you have to think about where is the child developmentally and how do I match them developmentally,” Hersom said.

Since the pandemic began, the budget for EI was cut by 10%. They don’t know when they’ll be able to go back to in-home services – that will be up to the state.

The program’s referrals are down as well – they’re encouraging families who need help to reach out.

If you are concerned about a child’s development in any way click here for help or call 719-577-9190.

What other resources are out there?

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Latest Local Stories

More Local