Distance Learning Places Extra Burden On Parents Of Students With Disabilities | Texas Public Radio

Distance Learning Places Extra Burden On Parents Of Students With Disabilities

Apr 6, 2020

Students with disabilities often have a small army of support at school to keep them healthy and learning. Special education teachers. Aides. Therapists.

The sudden switch to distance learning brought on by the coronavirus has forced parents to take on many of those roles.

Even homeschool veterans like Houston mom Neches Phelps are feeling the effects.

“I love homeschooling. I really, really do,” Phelps said. “I wasn't prepared for all of this.”

Two of her three children have autism. Alexander, 12, uses an iPad to communicate and most of his lessons focus on life skills. Before the outbreak, he saw specialists in speech, behavior and occupational therapy each week.

Phelps is trying to continue this therapy on her own from home, while teaching her two younger kids.

“I am exhausted, and we're only getting through math. Right now we aren't — we haven't started reading yet,” Phelps said.

Both parents and educators of students with disabilities say the sudden need to stay home makes everything more challenging and time-consuming. It disrupts routines and makes some things simply impossible.

San Antonio mom Ashley Haugen said she’s just trying to muddle through as best she can and find small moments of joy when she can.

Ashley Haugen's daughter Kipley watches her teacher read a story on her tablet.
Credit Provided | Ashley Haugen

Her three-year-old, Kipley, loves to hear her preschool teacher read stories aloud on her tablet. She also loves wearing her purple princess dress while she does it, instead of her school uniform.

“My little girl absolutely adores her teachers. And she's been so sad about not being able to go to school,” Haugen said. “She's watched that video probably 20 to 30 times just over and over.”

Haugen’s biggest concern is that her daughters’ progress in speech therapy will regress.

There was a three-week delay between school closing in the San Antonio Independent School District and the first time she heard from the speech language pathologist, but she said they actually got in touch with her sooner than she expected.

“I think that they're doing the best they can with what tools they have to work with,” Haugen said. “I think it's a really big challenge, going from in-person doing speech therapy and doing teaching to then going online.”

Her older daughter, Abigail, is dyslexic. Kipley has autism, apraxia and aphasia. Because the speech pathologist had to adapt her caseload to an online environment, she’ll be seeing Abigail and Kipley less than she normally would.

Instead of 30-minute group sessions twice a week for Kipley and twice every other week for Abigail, each girl will have 15 minutes of individual teletherapy a week.

“I'm concerned about how things are going to go as the kids as this unfolds. I mean, we don't know how long this is going to last for,” Haugen said. “(Kipley has) already kind of slid back when it comes to being able to say certain words.”

Other parents are experiencing similar delays and workarounds. San Antonio’s Northside school district gave Priscilla Kelley’s eight-year-old son Benjamin exercises to keep him active.

Priscilla Kelley's son Benjamin stands on one leg during an exercise his school sent his mom.
Credit Provided | Priscilla Kelley

Standing barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, he spins around in circles when he’s shown the color red, then stands on one foot when the color turns blue.

Benjamin was born three months early and had a traumatic brain injury when he was three. He normally receives speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy at school.

Kelley said all three of his therapists have reached out through Google Classroom, but halfway through their second week of distance learning, they hadn’t scheduled any teletherapy sessions yet.

“They've sent us a couple videos here and there. We really haven't had the time to go through it all,” Kelley said.

Kelley says the transition to online learning has been challenging, but she feels like the district has done a good job. She’s also been able to get Benjamin teletherapy through a local nonprofit called Teamability.

“At first I was a little stressed out because it was overwhelming. It was a lot of work, but we're slowly kind of getting the hang of it and adjusting,” Kelley said.

Like all parents of students with disabilities, she has to balance her son’s care with her own. Kelley’s currently on dialysis, awaiting a kidney transplant.

“That's why we're trying to get a lot of this going and then (his) dad and his nurse are going to probably take over whenever I'm in the hospital,” Kelley said.

Kelley said they’re trying to take it one day at a time and not put too much pressure on themselves.

Laura Isensee contributed to this story.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille.