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‘It Does Not Even Come Close’: Virtual Learning A Struggle For Many Special Needs Students, Parents

With schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, students have had to adapt to trying to keep up with lessons remotely, from living rooms, kitchen tables and bedrooms.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

Many schools are now conducting classes 100% online. Navigating virtual education has many families scrambling to make it work, but likely none more so than families with special needs students.

That’s certainly the case for St. Louis County resident Diane Southard, who struggles to help her kids complete the most basic assignments. Southard is the mother of eight children, five of whom live with some form of developmental disability. Three of her kids require one-to-one support during the school day.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Southard discussed why an all-virtual school year is unsustainable for her family. Normally, her children depend on individualized education plans to get through school lessons.

“The issue with that is I am one person having to assist three individuals who [typically] have one-on-one support. And honestly since the pandemic, it has significantly impacted my 9-year-old daughter, who has a medical diagnosis of autism,” Southard said.

“Over the past two weeks, since our virtual learning has started, she has had a really hard time, and it is impacting her safety. And so just not being able to leave her alone at all does not allow me to assist my other two children who need that one-on-one [paraprofessional] support. And I need to keep her safe. I need to make very difficult decisions for my family, and that means forgoing their virtual learning.”

She added that while the schools have tried hard to provide the family with learning supplies to accommodate her children, “it does not even come close to what services they were receiving in the school environment during that typical pre-COVID time.”

The co-director of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center at Washington University, Dr. John Constantino, joined Thursday’s conversation.

He recently published a letter in the American Journal of Psychiatry stressing that children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities face major burdens due to the pandemic and the shift to online learning.

“Most people don't understand that everything that [Diane Southard] described has nothing to do with the infection. It has to do with the fact of what the pandemic has done to restrict access to necessary support that individuals with developmental disabilities need to be engaged in education and to make their great contributions to the community and society that they do,” he said.

In the letter, Constantino and other doctors urged the prioritization of providing children with intellectual and developmental disabilities with necessary services and in-person learning.

“Families who have watched the progress of their children, starting from March at the start of the pandemic, for those kids who just cannot benefit from virtual learning, they have watched their children's educational and achievement and even social and communicative progress either stall or go backwards as a function of the pandemic,” Constantino said.

“And so there are real consequences of the decisions that are made about who to provide in-person education. And I think that there are many kids for whom, although it is a sacrifice, virtual learning is working, and they are making progress. And there has to be equity in thinking about what all children need to be able to reach their highest potential.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.