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'It's not cutting it': Significant roadblocks deter special education students from progressing at home

Denise Schwebel and her daughter, Emma, sat at the head of their dining room table on a recent Friday afternoon to finish the final few online assignments of the school year.

Schoolwork for Emma, who is in a multiple disabilities support program run by the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 at Conestoga Valley High School, is always a team effort. The 20-year-old is cognitively delayed and in a wheelchair, can’t talk and only eats pureed foods.

But because she hasn’t been in school since mid-March because of the coronavirus shutdown, her mom has been by her side to help.

Denise Schwebel and Emma

Denise Schwebel works with her daughter Emma, left, in their West Hempfield Township home Friday, May 29, 2020.

On this day, they were working on a science assignment based on the energy that makes roller coasters run.

“How does a roller coaster go up a hill? Does the chain pull it up the hill? Yes or no?” Denise asked her daughter, holding up two laminated cards – a yellow smiley face for yes and a red “x” for no.

With the dog, Ginger, on guard duty next to them, Emma looked at her mom. Then looked at the cards. She slowly reached her hand toward the yellow smiley face.

It was one of a select few of victories throughout the day, as online learning for students requiring special education services represents significant challenges and roadblocks. Parents and experts say falling behind for such students is a very real possibility.

“I don’t think she’s getting much out of it,” Denise, 47, of West Hempfield Township, said. “I don’t think it’s progressing her.”

On a typical day, Denise said she and Emma spend two and a half hours on the computer, if they’re lucky. It’s often difficult, because Emma doesn’t understand that pictures on the screen represent real-life objects.

That’s not a knock on Emma’s teachers or aides, with whom she video conferences every weekday, Denise said, calling the work they’ve done “wonderful.” 

Considering Emma’s age and mental capacity, there isn’t much room to grow. 

“I know that this hinders her learning, of course, in some ways,” Denise said, “but because of the level Emma is at, she’s really not backsliding.”

For younger students with disabilities, the consequences of suspending in-person instruction are more severe.

Denise Schwebel and Emma

Emma Schwebel, left, reacts to something in her Zoom meeting with working with her mother Denise in their West Hempfield Township home Friday, May 29, 2020.

Special education lawsuit

A lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Philadelphia on behalf of two Bucks County children alleges students with autism were illegally denied an education during the government-mandated school shutdown.

Specifically, the parents sued Gov. Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera for not deeming in-person educational services for nonverbal and partially verbal children with autism life-sustaining.

James J. Pepper, the lawyer representing the families, did not return a request for comment, but he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “As things stand now, online learning is the only option for school districts, and it’s not cutting it for these kids. They are not receiving an education, and the state is responsible.”

The state Department of Education announced last week schools may resume in-person instruction July 1. A spokesman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Sherry Zubeck, the director of early childhood and special education services at the IU13, said while she empathizes with parents, the lawsuit lacks merit.

“I’m sad about that,” she said about students struggling with online lessons, “but I want them to be healthy, first and foremost.”

Zubeck said the unfortunate truth is students, with or without disabilities, will fall behind and likely need remediation in the fall.

Teachers, she said, were asked to fulfill special education requirements as best as possible. Parents, meanwhile, were asked to be patient, flexible and in constant communication with teachers, aides and principals.

“Now more than ever we need to see parents as partners in this work,” Zubeck said.

'Very frustrating’

Nicole Jean home learning

Nicole Jean helps her 7 year old son Ethan Rosenberger-Jean with his school work in their Elizabethtown home Thursday, May 21, 2020.

Patience, however, is in short quantities for parents like Nicole Jean.

Jean, 49, of Elizabethtown, has 10 children, seven of whom are in school. Six require special education services. While her two older kids fared well online in full-time learning support classes, her younger children struggled mightily, partly because she feels they were mainstreamed with regular students.

“It’s very frustrating, because it’s just not really working,” Jean said. “Not all their work is on their level.”

Jean said if schools don’t resume in-person instruction in the fall, she’d homeschool her kids.

“I’d absolutely pull them out,” she said.