Special needs children face challenges during pandemic

HOUSTON – The disruption in routine made it especially difficult for special education children during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts said.

“She loves to learn. She does love school,” said mother Tiffany Benitez.

Samantha is nine years old and loves learning, being a Girl Scout and playing baseball.

“My daughter is in fourth grade and she’s on the Autism spectrum,” Benitez said.

Samantha was diagnosed with special needs in Kindergarten.

“She struggles with focusing and social skills, some pragmatic language and reading comprehension,” said Benitez.

Once the pandemic hit, the world changed, even more so for little Samantha.

“She was really impacted at the start of the pandemic because she just didn’t understand what was happening,” said Benitez. “She didn’t understand why we weren’t going to school anymore.”

Benitez took steps to help Samantha learn at home.

“We had to set up a station for her where she had all of her school supplies,” said Benitez. “We wrote her schedule out for her that her teachers had established, and she was pretty good at following the schedule.

But it was still tough for Samantha to focus.

“It was (hard) just sitting and looking at the Chrome book, looking at the screen and her little eyes would wander,” said Benitez. “I know she was probably just in her own world, with her imagination and not really fully engaged.”

Like many other school districts, Galena Park ISD noticed their special education children needed more support.

“The physical support, the direct connection and direct engagement that they depend so heavily on to thrive was literally snatched away,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mechelle Epps. “For a lot of our students that was a very difficult transition.”

Epps has been in education for 25 years and said the special education students returned weeks before others.

“We realized the need to get them back as quickly as possible and to begin reestablishing those routines,” said Epps. “We refuse to allow COVID to be the excuse not to educate our children, to not feed our children, to not provide our students with what they need to be successful both now and in the future.”

Dr. Duncan Klussmann with the University of Houston, who also has a daughter with special needs, said it’ll take a community effort and communication.

“Everybody has to come together to find their role in their work,” said Klussmann. “Establishing the routines is critical. I know that’s difficult for families, both parents may be working, maybe working multiple jobs, there are other students in the home.”

He urges parents to keep communication open and talk with their teachers and principals regarding any concerns or changes they need to make to their Individualized Education Plan or IEP.

Under federal law, an IEP is created and reviewed once a year for every student in public school diagnosed with a disability.

“It can’t go back to what the day before that looked like, it really has to be different,” he said. “You have to be very flexible. You have to try different things and be willing to adjust and move things around.”

For the Benitez family, they knew Samantha would be most successful in the classroom at North Shore Elementary School.

The school has a program called “Focus” specifically to meet their daughter’s special needs.

“With tutorials after school and small group instruction, resource learning, she’s doing amazing and she’s thriving here back on campus,” said Benitez.

Dr. Klussman said visual schedules help kids know what to expect, what comes next and when an activity is done. He said be prepared for disruptions and have a plan in place if they happen.

He said parents are encouraged to offer support to their child and praise for a job well done.

Remember, every child is different.

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