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Distance learning threatens to leave students with special needs behind

HOUSTON – When COVID-19 shut down schools, students with special needs lost weeks of critical classroom time. That’s time that Jim and Lori Mazany say really impacted their son’s education.

“The school he’s missed, the time he’s missed... He’s regressed significantly,” Jim said.

Luke Mazany, 21, is a special education student at the Katy Independent School District. He has autism and before the pandemic, he received specialized, personal teaching and was doing well in school. But he’s struggled with distance learning.

“They told me that he would get on the computer, certain times of the day and do certain school work and zoom meetings and all this stuff and that’s not school for him," Lori said. "It was a ridiculous offer and did nothing for him.”

The Mazanys say for Luke and thousands of other students like him, distance learning just doesn’t work. And they, like other parents, worry about what’s going to happen when the new school year starts in a couple of months.

Fort Bend ISD

Deena Hill who is the Director of Student Support Services for the Fort Bend Independent Schol District realizes students like Luke will need special help to catch up.

“There’s a population of our students with special ed services that absolutely don’t benefit from online instruction,” Hill said.

Starting June 22, the district plans to send a team of nearly 60 instructors into special needs students’ homes, two hours a day, three to four days per week. And in July, there are plans to bring those kids into the schools for instruction.

“We know that online has not been very appropriate,” Hill said. “So, we’re going to go into the home and we’re going to work with the kids.”

Advice for parents

According to Dr. Rachel Fein, a clinical psychologist at Texas Children’s Autism Center, there are things parents should ask of their kids’ school districts to ensure they’re getting the educational resources they need.

  • Ask the teacher to record all lessons and instructions, Fein said.
  • If you are using a computer, find a program that provides instant feedback. “It’s not enough to do an assignment and turn it in and wait for information a couple hours later,” Fein said. “As soon as they click the button it says, ‘oh wow, you got that correct.’”
  • And if you’re having problems, ask the teacher to schedule a time to talk every week.

Special education advocate

The Mazanys want Katy ISD to make up for all of the learning time Luke has lost since the pandemic started so they hired Karen Meyer Cunningham, a special education advocate, to meet with district officials and let them know what they want.

“He’s missed 17,500 minutes of instruction at school," Cunningham said. "So, we’re going to ask that he be delivered those minutes back at school, back in class with his teachers, his full instructional day for 10 weeks.”

Katy ISD statement

We asked Katy ISD about its plans for helping students with special needs and we received this statement:

“Due to FERPA, the District is not allowed to provide information pertaining to students and the services they receive. However, Katy ISD has made it a priority to ensure all students receive unparalleled learning experiences designed to prepare students for their future.”

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD statement:

We also received the following statement from Cypress-Fairbanks ISD:

“Cypress-Fairbanks ISD students, especially our students receiving special education services, have been a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers have been delivering instruction to students through a variety of virtual modalities, and our trained and certified special education teachers have been in contact with our students and their families at structured intervals to provide instruction, resources and support to address students’ individual needs. Support staff have also been conferencing with teachers and families on a regular basis. Many of our students receiving special education services have been successfully accessing our Learning at Home online program and/or instructional packets, both of which have accommodations for special needs students. Students will be able to continue their learning through summer programs focused on individualized instruction as well as home learning resources. We are also planning, within the constraints outlined by Gov. Abbott, to prioritize in-person instruction for those students who would most benefit from targeted interventions, such as our special education students.”