Life, learning on hold for special needs students

Parents say teachers are doing their best to provide education, but it’s difficult.


Ryan Murray, a student with autism in the Navigator class at the Martha’s Vineyard High School, is having a tough time without a strict schedule to follow, and his dad, John Murray, says he’s missing all the friendships at school that took so long to build. John’s afraid Ryan will lose the skills the school staff has worked so hard to help him gain.

“The school is trying their best,” John says. “I hear parents complain about typical kids, trying to get them to focus and do their work, never mind a kid with a disability. There’s a lot of work that has gone into developing their skills, their friendships, life skills — and all of that has stopped.”

As teachers and school administrators work to implement technology to finish out the rest of the school year, there’s one part of the school population that is particularly hard hit by this new normal: special education students. Many parents say they’re struggling with getting their typical children to focus during online classes, so imagine how hard it would be for students who find it hard to communicate in the real world, much less in this new virtual realm.

One very real worry for parents of children with special needs is regression. Some of these students require extra help to stay focused, to achieve their goals. They may need constant direction and redirection to stay on track, without this they could lose the mastery school staff has worked so hard with them to achieve.

Ryan’s teacher in the Navigator program, Keren Albiston, understands where parents are coming from. Her students are usually evaluated and that information helps determine what a student’s Individualized Education Program will be, and that IEP provides a sort of map for the student, staff, and parents. Right now, evaluations can’t be done, Albiston said.

“I’m currently not getting the same output as I do face-to-face, it’s a totally different format, it’s a totally different world,” she said. “We’ll see what happens when we all get back together, but that will be a problem with all kids.”

Some students need to focus heavily on life skills on a daily basis, Albiston said, and parents are trying to replicate at home what teachers do at school.

Brooke Avakian’s son Cooper is a first-grader in the Bridge Program at Edgartown School. He is also autistic and is used to a support system that’s in place during his school day.

“He’s used to a structured day,” Avakian says. “He has an all-visual schedule and timers, he’s got a behavior support plan in place at school and break cards he uses, and more people checking in with him to see how he’s regulated.”

Cooper’s day now is like a rollercoaster ride, his mom said.

“The school sent home his schedule boards with all of his visuals attached to it and they’ve sent a token board and other visuals for calming down, taking a break,” Avakian explained. “We try to use the visual schedule to have a little structure in our day, but he’s having a hard time separating between home and school. He sees his school work presented at home, and he’s not happy about that.”

The concept of why they are staying at home might get completely lost on a student with high needs, both parents agreed. A student who has difficulty navigating the world could have an even more difficult time in this new reality.

“We’re doing Zoom classes, but it can be more difficult,” Albiston said. “We have morning meetings with everyone participating, but I do have some students where that platform is not ideal. They don’t interact socially in the world, so virtual learning is a non-interest.”

Albiston does consult with parents regularly, suggesting what they can do with their children at home, as well as leading students in Zoom classes. She reads and does math with her students, leads a small algebra group, keeps in touch with them.

“They love connecting with each other, we talk about ways to stay happy, we talk a lot about what that means, we keep in touch, see each other and check in,” she said. “It’s hard in terms of a special education teacher. We have IEPs and students progressing toward goals, and it’s hard to gauge what they can do independently. It’s hard to see where their independent mastery is right now.”

Many of Albiston’s students also have occupational, speech, and physical therapies, so they can also do exercises within those areas. But some of the frustrations lie among more ordinary challenges the students face.

“Their understanding of what the heck happened,” Albiston said. “Why am I not going to school? Why do I have to stay home all the time? Open-ended concepts are really hard for them to wrap their heads around. The idea of not knowing is really hard for them.” One of Alibston’s students, Connor McGrath, told her, “Me and my dad are going to pretend that we know when the coronavirus will end.”

For Ryan Murray, the all-important schedule has changed drastically. His parents are currently separated and his mother lives next door to his dad so that they can co-parent more easily. Usually they divide their time with Ryan, giving each other a break. Now, because John works as director of facilities at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and he wants to keep his family healthy, Ryan is spending the days and nights with his mom, Rose, and he gets together with his dad on the weekends for walks, all of them wearing masks.

Ryan’s used to a 9:30 pm bedtime Sunday through Thursday night, he gets up for school at 5:45 am, the bus comes at 7 am and he’s happy with that, his dad says. Now that’s all gone.

“School from home, Zoom meetings with teachers, isn’t working for Ryan,” John said. “He needs someone with him so that he stays focused because he gets distracted. That’s tough to do unless his mom sits with him all day, every day. It’s really hard for one parent to manage that, and I give Rose credit because it’s a lot of work.”

Both Cooper and Ryan are struggling with behavioral issues. Ryan is spending more time alone in his room, John said, and he doesn’t want to do what he’s asked to do. Ryan knows how to dial 911, and has called the number when he feels frustrated. The police don’t hear a voice on the other end of the call, so they rush over to Ryan’s house, John explained. This has happened since Ryan’s been home from school.

“It feels like we’ve gone in reverse, from back when he was little when we didn’t have support in place,” Brooke says. “I feel like we’re slipping back with behaviors. Cooper is more self-inflicting now, and we were getting to a good point this year to minimize this, and he’s kind of slipped into those behaviors.”

For Brooke, keeping Cooper settled and happy at home while the rest of life is swirling around her family is more than enough to do.

“Everyone is doing the best they can and I think that’s all I can do,” Avakian said, “. . . take pressure off myself when I’m feeling like I’m failing him. I always worry about him all the time. He’s a full time job, making sure he has everything he needs so that he can have his best life. We need to focus on happiness and being calm and making sure he feels safe at home with us.”

Albiston has a second-grader and a fourth-grader at home with her while she’s meeting the needs of her students in the Navigator class.

“We’re doing the best we can. Everyone is super supportive . . . the parents are so appreciative and positive,” she said. “They’re stressed and I try to support them, too. If I could envision a world where it was going the best that it could, I think this would be it.”

For her students, the classroom is “their world, their people,” and being away from that is hard, she said.

John Murray says there are a lot of things on hold for everyone right now, nevermind for all the kids on the autism spectrum.

“The school is trying their best. I think it’s all an experiment now,” John said. “It’s like if someone said I’ll take you from your sunny house and drop you 10 miles out to sea without a life jacket, and you get a piece of wood and a sheet and figure out how to get here from there. That’s how I think of the teachers, they’re out there trying to navigate.”