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Here’s How Students with Disabilities and Their Parents Adjusted to Remote Learning

Here’s How Students with Disabilities and Their Parents Adjusted to Remote Learning

When remote learning first began, four families shared how their students with disabilities dealt with unique challenges to the new learning format. Now, school reopenings bring new ones.


For Jackie Goldberg’s son Sam, who is nonverbal, losing the physical presence of his teachers and peers was confusing and anxiety-provoking, like it might be for anyone. But the transition to remote learning last spring—in which students and classmates are replaced by images of themselves on an iPad—was particularly challenging for students with disabilities, their families said. Sam’s agitation has increased, Jackie said, and he developed separation anxiety and wouldn’t leave her side. As of May, he hadn’t been outside of his Upper East Side apartment in months, as it’s hard for him to understand social distancing. There was no plan for what would come next.

“[The people in his life], they’re just gone. They’re erased,” Goldberg said. “And now that he is with me all this time, is he going to stay with me? Is he going to go back? What’s he going to go back to?”

Four families shared their experiences with the transition to remote learning and thoughts about all of the unknowns coronavirus presents, from what school will look like in the fall to how losing therapies and services has impacted kids. Every family’s experience was different, but a common thread comes through: for students and parents who don’t have safety nets, the transition was a uniquely trying one.

Remote Learning Led to Regression

Parents said remote learning had tangible consequences for their children. Acola McKnight’s 5-year-old son Kaleb didn’t receive his physical and occupational therapies for the first three weeks of remote learning because each therapist had to be approved to do work over Zoom. Kaleb goes to a school specifically for children with disabilities. In those therapy-less weeks, Kaleb regressed “tremendously,” McKnight said.

“It was horrible. It was as if he had never gone to that school and gotten services,” she said. “Since Zoom has started, he’s a little better, but it’s not good. Occupational therapy is a therapy you need to do hand-over-hand. It’s not the way it used to be. [For physical therapy], it’s hard for him to be motivated over Zoom.” 

Kaleb’s frustration boiled over sometimes when he was asked to attend class or do work on his tablet.

“He hasn’t adjusted well to not being in the classroom. He doesn’t have the patience to sit down in front of the tablet. And at some point, I can’t make him, because I don’t want to traumatize him by forcing him to sit down,” McKnight said. “It’s not fair to him. He doesn’t understand this change.”

For Amber Decker’s son, who is a freshman, the biggest challenge came from the disproportionate amount of asynchronous work he was asked to complete during remote learning. Asynchronous work is homework or class assignments students are asked to do on their own, without live instruction. Decker said her son was particularly unmotivated because he already did well in the first three marking periods of the year, and struggled to see the point of this last one. 

“He’s doing work, but he’s not doing well. He’s getting thirties and forties. And that’s not typical for him at all,” Decker said. Students in her son’s class weren’t graded on their synchronous work, such as class participation during live lessons or in 1-on-1 sessions with their teachers. Decker believes her son would do better if those aspects of his schoolwork were assessed like they are when school is running normally.

Losing school meant losing more than academics, too.

“He was doing extremely well in gym, which he has always done really poorly in. This was the first year he was [doing well],” she said. “He was really excelling in that area, and having more friendships, and going out to lunch. He wasn’t coming home by himself, which was a big deal. All of that has stopped. He was finally catching up, and now that’s fell by the wayside.” 

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Supporting Kids While Working from Home Took a Toll

Some kids might be able to navigate their online classrooms independently while their parents work. But some kids need more support—they couldn’t get into Zoom meetings themselves or needed to be guided through PT sessions—and parents were doing balancing acts.

McKnight is a single parent, and she works from 9am-5pm. But during that time, Kaleb had class on his iPad, and McKnight also has a 20-month-old baby. She hired a nanny to watch the kids, an added expense, but if the nanny needed to help Kaleb in an OT session and McKnight had to watch the baby, her work slipped through the cracks.  

 “I feel like I’m making everyone else’s job easier, and no one is making my job easier as a parent being at home,” McKnight said.

Paola Jordan’s 12-year-old twins, Thomas and Maya, both have disabilities. Thomas is classified as having a learning disability and has dysgraphia, which means he has trouble with handwriting; assistive technology helps him complete assignments. Thomas also has anxiety and ADHD. He is part of an integrated co-teaching (ICT) classroom. Maya has autism spectrum disorder. 



Jordan described the hardest part of the transition as watching her twins grow more isolated because of social distancing—and that, coupled with her job supporting other families with kids with special needs, made managing her mental health difficult. Jordan’s husband is a first responder and was living in a different space to minimize coronavirus risk for the family this past spring. Paola was often up until 2am or 3am finishing her work after taking care of the kids. 

“It’s hard for me to convey the worriedness that I have being the only provider for my [children], where I don’t have a support system. It’s just me,” Jordan said. “It’s the extra planning, I have to be extra careful. It’s extra work, it’s extra cleaning. It’s exhausting. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”

Jordan has coped with mental health challenges throughout her life; this added to the challenge. Golberg, who has lived with depression and anxiety for years, described the loneliness she felt this spring because her partner had to work long hours and couldn’t be present to help her help Sam, through no fault of his own. Goldberg had difficulty sleeping and falling asleep; the worry could be all-consuming.

“It’s been tough on the marriage and relationship. My husband works all the time,” she said. “So he’s here, but he’s really not accessible to me or Sam. And something about that is very wearing. To know someone is there visibly, but not being able to rely on them.”

Sometimes, the Kids Were Alright

While it took Thomas and Maya a little while to adjust to remote learning, and there were definite drawbacks, both of Jordan’s kids said there are unexpected benefits to not being in a physical classroom. Thomas preferred remote learning because he had the time to complete his assignments instead of being confined to a 45-minute class period.

“[English language arts] used to be really complicated for me, but now I have time to complete all the assignments in the way my teachers expect. That’s how I’m getting way better grades,” he said.

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Thomas was satisfied with video calling and playing games with his friends. But while Maya enjoyed working on her own schedule, she missed 1-on-1 time with her teachers and live lessons, she said. Jordan described Maya as “a kid who never wants to miss school,” who “puts a lot of pressure on herself to perform.”

“It’d be a lot easier and a lot quicker if I could just do [my work] with a teacher,” Maya said. “I managed to bring my grades back up pretty well. When I first got used to remote learning everything was really confusing and new, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

Jordan watched Maya attend Social Development Intervention speech therapy sessions with her peers for several weeks, which was eye-opening.

“My daughter is able to elaborate and articulate a little bit more her personal life and who she is as a person outside of school,” Jordan said. “Now that I’m able to see the therapy in action, I’m seeing the promise.”

What We Know About School Reopenings

New York City schools will not begin to open for a full blended learning program until Sept. 21 (and many schools will open for blended learning Sept. 29 or Oct. 1), so educators have more time to prepare for the year ahead. As of Sept. 14, 55 NYC school staff members have tested positive for coronavirus. New York State has created a dashboard to track cases in all schools. The NYC Department of Education has released a plan to follow should a school experience an outbreak. 

District 75 schools will offer in-person instruction for all students and follow 1 of 2 models; some students will receive in-person instruction daily depending on need. The DOE says students with IEPs will receive in-person instruction as much as possible. The city is waiting to see what happens next. 

Even back in May, the future was parents’ biggest concern. 

Decker wondered how her son will cope with going back to school. McKnight was unsure of how far her son would fall behind in a remote-learning setting, and exhausted by the demands placed on her to be an educator, employee, and parent. Goldberg watched Sam’s anxiety skyrocket and didn’t see a plausible way of returning to school, returning to anything. She has her finger on the pulse of the parent community around her, where fear was omnipresent too. 

“People are petrified of the idea of [going back to] school and day programs,” she said. “People are more petrified at the idea of not having those.”

Jordan said she and her family are taking things one day at a time, and she put things into perspective by practicing gratitude—at least she and the kids are healthy. She found solace in walking up and down the flights of stairs in her apartment building with the kids. Up and down, up and down, up and down, twice a week. Jordan timed their trips. As of May, they were getting faster.

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Jacqueline Neber

Author: Jacqueline Neber is a social journalism MA candidate at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. When she’s not reporting, you can find her petting someone else’s dog. See More

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