A Rough Transition

Lifestyles changed abruptly with the arrival of COVID-19, forcing everyone to adjust to a new and hopefully temporary normal. Many individuals have been struggling with various aspects of the transition against the fluctuating backdrop of circumstances. But one group that may have gone overlooked is the one that consists of students with special needs. This group has about 7 million individuals in America, and parents across the nation were tasked with teaching and caring for their kids in ways that they were never trained in, resulting in many sentiments of hopelessness and a desperate cry pushing for the return to school. It is undeniable that distanced learning and the stressful environment carved out by the pandemic have presented a plethora of nightmarish challenges for these families, but this time is not devoid of progress. Defending against negative discouragement and instead drawing out the benefits of their unique situations is the first valuable step as parents and teachers work together with community support towards quality learning. 

Horror Stories With Blank Pages  

The loud majority of anecdotes from parents of students with special needs make it very clear that their experiences trying to teach were overwhelming disasters, but they don’t need to stay that way. Students with special needs used to have regular access to planned structures, professional support, and peer socialization, but with the pandemic, all of these things diminished rapidly and were bundled into one job that parents had to bear. And that only looks at a situation between parents and one student with special needs, when most parents have to balance their own work schedules, family responsibilities, internal stresses, and any other children. Many exhausted parents question how they can be expected to repeat this cycle in the approaching fall if the new school year begins with distanced learning as the last year ended. But these horror stories can still change as the pandemic extends uncertainty. Parents have the special opportunity to choose to step back and reframe their thinking to approach distanced learning and their child’s individual needs in a safe and quality way. 

Though unimaginable for many of us, it is understandable that these parents are drained and demanding for in person education to return. However, it is the magnification of these discouraging experiences that are driving parents to push for in-person school as many schools are putting together hybrid models for students to return. Fearing regression and the socioemotional health of their kids is a completely valid concern, but parents must realize that the physical health risk of students and teachers alike is not worth taking. Instead of focusing on the varying sense of failure from distanced learning experiences, parents must shift their perspective to prepare for whatever amount of distanced learning lies ahead by recognizing the benefits. Because as long as parents are immersed by a consuming amount of negativity, they won’t be able to help kids persevere either.   

Silver Linings Into Lifestyles

Despite the uphill battle against so many discouraging stories, there are lesser known but equally valuable positive experiences of students with special needs. These families share that while the distanced learning has been challenging, it has been a unique time to focus on life skills around the house, discover new talents and interests in their kids, bond as a family, and appreciate the technology and efforts of school staff and peers. These are all beautiful things. And while other families may wish for these kinds of experiences and protest that they simply cannot obtain them, every situation can yield positives. With the summer to prepare for the fall, teachers and parents can both be preparing to increase communication as learning can be tailored to each student and family situation. Once they have shifted their view from one that isolates the setbacks, families can create a healthier perspective that confronts the setbacks with determination instead of desperation. Highlighting the pros to distanced learning may be an arduous endeavor, and some benefits are more hidden than others, but they do exist, and they can be elevated to cultivate a progressively successful learning experience. 

Progress Over Perfection  

This effort to establish better distanced learning experiences must be given attention by not only the parents but also by the teachers and schools. A middle school in Marin County actually brought its special education classroom back to campus after realizing that 90 percent of parents in that county wanted their students with special needs to return to school. It’s implied that this decision was made on the basis of distanced learning being insufficient for the students and too stressful for parents, but not every school has the luxury of being able to manage social distancing and adjusted procedures in the classroom. This example can serve as a model not necessarily for bringing kids back to school, but for the value of teamwork between educators and parents. This is essential for any hope of success regardless of what each school decides to handle the start of the school year. It is imperative that teachers voice their personal concerns as well as collective ones to the districts as programs are built to teach students either online, in person, or some proportion of both. Likewise, teachers and parents must keep the lines of communication open as they take the student’s individual needs and circumstances into consideration. Instead of letting the challenges of change and distanced learning suffocate progress, school staff and parents can work together to learn from previous experiences and methods and revise them in an ongoing effort. 

One Step At A Time 

It’s apparent that countless individuals must be involved and invested in delivering education to special needs students during this time, and those individuals include those who are not directly involved in special education. As school boards, teachers, and families are struggling to make the most of their situations, the community support is underestimated but vital. You may not have special needs, be related to someone with special needs, be a special education teacher or board member, but you are a member of a community. As such, we can get creative ourselves and continue to encourage these individuals. In a time of isolation, reaching out in kindness matters more than ever before. We may not be able to physically help families manage their children or personal responsibilities, but we can provide socioemotional support through helpful messages of encouragement, small care packages to keep them going, and even through video calls that have become so stabilizing for many. Listening to parents and teachers as friends can strengthen them to persevere as we empathize with their struggles but remind them of the purpose to be found within such hardship. 

Making use of the easily accessible resources online for the general public, as well as continuing to work with teachers closely to come up with individualized materials, can help parents greatly, but the support from friends and community offers equal, if not more, assistance. In our current COVID-19 experience, we recognize the power of social support and interaction. While this and many other habits of daily life were taken away or altered in the past months, our capacity to support one another still remains. It may not look the same, but we must continue to express selflessness for one another as we are all grappling with something, whether it be leading a family with special needs students, working through frustrations with the school board, trying to make the best decisions for a district, or simply going out of our way to encourage the people in our environment. The pandemic churns on relentlessly, but we can respond in such a way that works with what we have been given instead of trying to work around our circumstances that seem to have stripped us of too much. Despite the draining challenges that come with caring for students with special needs right now, this overall experience does not have to leave education dry if families, educators, and supporters are all willing to put in some extra effort, understanding, and resilience.