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NPR Health

How Students With Disabilities Would Go Back To School

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Children with disabilities can expect to face significant challenges as the new school year begins. In Alabama, the state superintendent recently said the issue keeps him up at night. Many schools there are limiting in-person instruction due to the continued spread of the coronavirus. Advocates and health experts say the loss of services could have significant consequences for students with special needs. From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Mary Scott Hodgin reports.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Back in March when school suddenly went virtual, Marcella Roberts adapted as best as she could.

MARCELLA ROBERTS: It's been, I'll say - I'll use the word interesting (laughter).

SCOTT HODGIN: Roberts and her husband live outside of Birmingham. They have twin boys starting middle school this month. One of their sons, Joshua, has Down syndrome. Roberts says the pandemic has created some challenges.

ROBERTS: Children with Down syndrome are very sociable, and there is no distancing with them because they love to hug.

SCOTT HODGIN: But she's been teaching Joshua alternatives, like fist bumps and hand signals, safer greetings for when he's back in the classroom. His school is offering in-person classes on a staggered schedule. Roberts wants Joshua to return to school not only because he loves being around other people, but because he receives services like speech therapy that can't be easily replicated at home.

ROBERTS: I think Joshua is going to do better in an in-person environment being there with his instructors and having that one-on-one time.

SCOTT HODGIN: But not all schools are offering in-person classes. And for some students with special needs, it's too risky. Many have serious underlying health conditions. Nancy Anderson is with the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. She's concerned that online platforms won't meet many kids' needs.

NANCY ANDERSON: You are going to see a tremendous loss of learning among students with disabilities, some of which, I fear, will not easily be made up.

SCOTT HODGIN: Schools are required by law to provide special education services. That includes things like physical and occupational therapy and personalized learning plans. Nationwide, many educators have acknowledged the challenge of providing these services remotely. In some states, parents are suing school districts over the issue. Anderson says parents do understand these are unprecedented times, but they also need guidance.

ANDERSON: I think it's really important for schools to engage with families, get to the table with them and talk with them about how their child's needs are going to be met.

SCOTT HODGIN: Many families are already struggling from the loss of in-person services in recent months. Dr. Justin Schwartz is a behavioral pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Many of his patients have autism or ADHD. He says for some, the pandemic has delayed progress.

JUSTIN SCHWARTZ: The functional skills, the adaptive skills, the kids who are working on toilet training or self-feeding or those things has been much more challenging to work on in a virtual way.

SCOTT HODGIN: He says this takes a toll on both kids and their families. Some are dealing with other setbacks, like unemployment or their own health issues. Schwartz says the pressure can have a significant impact on everyone's mental health.

SCHWARTZ: There's always the possibility for more behavior issues at home. There's always the possibility for more discord between parents and children or that, you know, overall family stress is heightened.

SCOTT HODGIN: Schwartz says for parents who have the option to send their kids back to the classroom, it's a risk-benefit analysis. And that can look different for every family.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.