Parents of children with disabilities work to be teachers and therapists amid coronavirus
The hardest part of being out of school for Diquaris Johnson has been adjusting to a new routine. Routines are important to Di, a 16-year-old student at the Washington Center who has autism and a developmental disorder.
He's never liked change.
“He does so much better with schedules that are really tight, and it’s just difficult,” said Valerie Allen, Di’s grandmother and caregiver. “His routine has been thrown off completely, and he doesn’t understand why he’s not going to school and seeing the people that he would normally see.”
Di typically receives speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy from the Washington Center. Allen said she’s been doing the activities the therapists send her, but Di still occasionally calls out his teachers’ names.
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“Now that everything’s kind of thrown off, he’s lost,” Allen said.
In the past month, schools across the globe have closed, businesses have shut down and officials have urged everyone to stay at home as much as possible to limit the spread of the coronavirus that's killed more than 11,000 Americans.
Now, everyone is dealing with the worries that come with drastic change — the same type of worries children with disabilities often confront on a day-to-day basis, educators say.
Shifting school to online learning and paper packets at home is not ideal, and it’s been a difficult adjustment for many families, said Traci Hogan, assistant superintendent for special education services with Greenville County Schools.
“We didn't think that this was the best way to educate kids or we would have been doing it," Hogan said.
But doing schoolwork from home is much harder for children who need therapy and direct guidance from teachers, which many parents are not equipped to administer.
Teachers in Greenville County Schools have been asked to be in contact with each family at least twice a week, but special education teachers are contacting families almost daily.
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The situation has forced educators to figure out different ways of teaching and providing services, which varies for every child. It's something teachers are accustomed to doing, Hogan said, even though the current circumstances are unprecedented.
"Each week, our teachers are digging deep to find new ways to do that," Hogan said. "We say all the time — what can we do tomorrow to make it even better?"
In Greenville County Schools, therapists will administer some speech, occupational and physical therapy via webcam starting the week of April 20, though Hogan knows not all families will be able to receive therapy that way since not everyone in the district has internet access at home.
Allen said the teachers have been in near-constant contact with her and have provided plenty of activities for Di.
All things considered, the transition to learning from home has gone smoother than she expected, though Di's biggest struggle has been accepting the changes.
“I think as it goes along, he'll get better. It's just going to take time — it takes time for him to adjust and accept things when they change. But if we're going to continue the rest of the school year like this, we'll just have to deal with it," Allen said. "This is uncharted territory."
The transition hasn’t been quite as difficult for Denise Barrett and her 11-year-old daughter, Abby, who has global developmental delays and is non-verbal.
Since Barrett is an early childhood teacher in Anderson County School District 5, she knows how to teach, even from home, though Barrett is not a special education teacher and still has to manage teaching her own class remotely.
“I know how to take on a lot of that responsibility myself as far as kicking into gear — Abby still needs to be doing activities, she still needs to be stimulated, she still needs to be challenged," Barrett said.
Barrett is thankful schools shut down when they did — her biggest worry is Abby’s health during this pandemic, particularly because Abby has chronic lung disease.
She’s looking at the situation through a positive lens — now that she’s directly involved with Abby’s schooling, she can see firsthand just how much Abby can accomplish academically.
“She's doing a lot of things that I never really thought she would do, as far as working with vocabulary, doing addition, starting to read," Barrett said. "This has been kind of a really great eye-opener for me, in that I've had to step in and take on some of the academic responsibilities and the activities with her."
Barrett hopes the school closures will also allow parents to see the role educators play in a child's life — from teachers to therapists to principals.
"As parents, sometimes we take for granted what teachers actually do. Because right now, I'm at home with one child with special needs, and in the classroom, there are seven children with special needs," Barrett said. "It's just kind of a big eye-opener — sometimes it's easier to handle my class of 18 than my homeschooling of one."
Now, Hogan has noticed more parent involvement than in the past — one of the few bright spots in a dark situation.
"We've always needed our parents to be partners with us," Hogan said. "This is something that's kind of almost turned the tables."
Ariel Gilreath is a watchdog reporter focusing on education and family issues with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ArielGilreath.