Zane Eaton — like many children with autism — thrives on routine. He struggled this spring when schools closed suddenly because of the covid-19 pandemic, eliminating all routine he knew.
The frustration continues for Zane this fall, especially when it comes to grasping the etiquette required to participate in classes through a computer screen. His parents opted for school online this year for the 11-year-old Fayetteville student for health-related reasons.
Zane experiences almost daily tantrums, some of which can become violent, according to his mother.
“He’ll throw himself against the ground and kick and thrash as he’s crying,” said Roslyn Imrie. “He’s almost 5 feet tall now. That’s a big kid.”
The pandemic has complicated learning for many students, but especially students with deficits, whether cognitive, physical or with the English language — children for whom school has never been easy.
Some educators fear that special-education students learning remotely are developing at a slower rate academically and socially as a result of being out of school.
Not all of these students are struggling with online education. Many are doing fine, and some may even be finding success where they didn’t find it before in school.
For others, doing school through a computer screen takes extra effort, and adds stress to their lives and their parents’ lives.
Arkansas public schools last school year served 66,339 students with disabilities, or about 14% of all students. This year’s total is not yet available, according to Kimberly Mundell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education of the Arkansas Department of Education.
Students with hearing and visual impairments, dyslexia, autism, traumatic brain injury and physical health conditions that affect their educational performance are examples of those who qualify for special-education services.
Another group of students that faces challenges even in the best of times is English language learners. Nearly 40,000 of Arkansas’ kindergarten-through-12th-grade students are classified as English language learners, more than 8% of all students.
Suzanne Johnston, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, coordinates the school’s K-12 language teaching programs. She also instructs university students planning to teach English as a second language in K-12 schools.
Language acquisition requires students to be exposed to the language, Johnston said.
“When you remove them from the classroom, they are no longer in the presence of a teacher or other students who could help them understand the language they’re exposed to,” she said.
Loretta Cochran of Pottsville has two school-age children with disabilities. Leigh, 16, and Guy, 13 have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and attention deficit disorder, respectively.
The pandemic has been especially difficult for special-education children, Cochran said.
“They’re just not able to process all of the incoming information and the anxiety and the stress,” she said.
Guy, an eighth-grader at Pottsville Junior High School, is one example. His disability means he struggles with executive functions — cognitive and mental skills that include organization, planning and attention.
He has an individualized education plan, known as an IEP, for the specialized instruction required for students with special needs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Guy often received dozens of school-generated emails per day when schools shifted to remote learning in the spring. The deluge overwhelmed him, Cochran said. And Cochran, who holds a doctorate and teaches business classes at Arkansas Tech University, said she had a hard time deciphering the schedule of when Guy needed to be meeting with his classes on Zoom.
Guy and Leigh both started this year in online school, largely because they didn’t want to bring covid-19 home to their mother, who is immuno-compromised. About a month into this semester, the family realized online wasn’t working for them.
Both teens were falling behind. They returned to school, where they are doing better academically, Cochran said.
She doesn’t blame the educators, who she said are doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances.
“There’s a knowledge base out there on how to appropriately program an online environment for students with learning difficulties, particularly executive functioning deficits. And I’m not sure our public school system as a whole in the state was informed of that over the summer,” Cochran said.
Matt Sewell, state director of special education, said the Elementary and Secondary Education Division provided districts the most up-to-date and accurate information from national support groups and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs.
The division developed multiple documents to guide and support instruction, some of which garnered national recognition and were shared with other states, Sewell said.
The division hosted virtual discussion groups for school workers to collaborate and discuss issues with colleagues and Education Department special-education staff members. These groups met weekly early on in the pandemic and now meet monthly, he said.
The department also provided grants to pay for digital programs for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.
Sewell said he and the division have learned a lot from the past several months. Many schools are seeing more parental participation by offering special-education conferences via teleconference, for example.
“I would also say that we learned that special-education services can be provided remotely through a variety of methods, such as virtual and telephonic venues, but we also learned that a student’s success and progress are dependent upon a strong line of school/home communication and truly individualizing services for students with consideration of the setting in which they are learning,” he said.
Remote learning last spring was “hell” for Carol Andrews’ two children: Colton, 6, and Christina, 13, of Greenwood.
Both children are doing school in-person this fall, though Greenwood schools pivoted to all-online learning on Nov. 19, with a plan to reopen schools Monday.
Colton, a first-grader, has an individualized education plan. He has a learning disability caused by a brain injury, Andrews said. He receives speech and occupational therapy at school.
Andrews and her husband decided to send both children to school rather than do online school this fall. She believed Colton especially was in danger of falling behind if he stayed online.
She hears people say schools need to go all online for the duration of the pandemic in order to protect students, teachers and school staff members. She understands the concern, but also worries what such a move would do to thousands of special-education students.
The law requires free, appropriate public education to each qualified person with a disability, and at least for special-education students, an online education isn’t equitable to an on-campus education, Andrews said. Services like speech therapy and occupational therapy — both of which Colton receives — aren’t as effective online as they are in-person, she said.
“You can’t force everybody to be virtual. It just won’t work,” Andrews said. “Special-education kids are going to fall further behind.”
Imrie, the Fayetteville mother, said she felt compelled to enroll Zane in online school because of his behavior. He frequently sticks items in his mouth. He loves touching and hugging people, so no social distancing for him. Keeping him home seemed the better option, she said.
Online school raises other challenges.
“We have spent the entire semester understanding how you conduct yourself in a Zoom meeting, how do you handle Google Classroom,” Imrie said. “He needed training on how to do school now.”
People with autism typically struggle with social situations, and the online class meetings presented Zane a new way of interacting with others. Some teleconferences are with small groups where conversation is encouraged; others are large groups where he’s not supposed to say anything.
“So that’s been really hard to navigate and get him to understand what’s expected of him,” Imrie said. “And normally he would have a paraprofessional helping him through his day, and that’s not possible, so I’m trying to fill the role of that paraprofessional.”
She home-schools Elo, her first-grade son, who also has autism. He won’t keep a mask on, she said.
Imrie, meanwhile, holds down a full-time job as director of education and community outreach for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. She works from home, tackling her job while the kids are in bed, on the weekends or any spare time she can find. Her husband is a teacher in Prairie Grove.
“I know everyone is struggling, but parents of special-needs kids are struggling more than most,” she said.
The state required school districts to create contingency plans for special-education students in cases where those who were doing in-person learning had to shift to online school.
The task required many hours of additional work for teachers, said Amber Graham, a special-education teacher in the Searcy School District. The contingency plans outline exactly how the schools are going to serve their students in remote learning situations.
“It gives a lot of really good information so those parents have something, so they don’t have that freak-out moment we had back in March” when schools suddenly closed, she said.
Graham teaches at the Searcy Learning Center, which serves special-education students identified as needing help addressing their specific behavioral, social and academic deficits. Her students can come from all grades, and she teaches online and in-person students.
Searcy has 544 students receiving special-education services — approximately 14% of enrollment. Of those in special education, 120, or 22%, are online students, according to Stephanie Lawrence, the district’s special-education director.
Online school works for some of them.
“For others, no,” Lawrence said. “We’re tracking those students, and if they’re not being successful, we’re holding meetings to look at their IEPs to see why. And then, as a team, deciding if they need to come back on-site. We’ve had some come back because the parents say, ‘this is not working.'”
Health concerns override academic concerns for some parents, and they feel compelled to keep their children at home. Lawrence acknowledged that it’s likely students in online school won’t progress academically at the same rate as they have in the past. Staff members will provide additional services for those children if necessary, she said.
Graham said she spent the first several weeks of this semester showing her online students how to use the technology.
“It took a lot of instruction just to teach them to access their education,” she said. “Now we’re at the point where we’re starting to be able to actually teach.”
Graham, who is in her 10th year of teaching, said it feels like her first year because of how much she’s had to learn, especially about technology.
The Rogers School District serves 1,912 students with disabilities, 429 of whom are accessing their educations online this semester, according to Sherry Stewart, director of special education. The pandemic has brought some pleasant surprises and success stories, she said.
She talked about one boy who struggled with reading and disliked reading aloud at school, because he was afraid of what his peers would think. His confidence and reading skills skyrocketed during online, one-on-one sessions with his teacher, Stewart said.
Sonia Pena, 18, is a junior at Conway High School who has been an English language learner for four years. The spring school shutdown slowed her progress in learning English, she said.
“When I’m at home, the only thing I want to do is watch TV, sleep and eat,” she said. She and her family speak Spanish at home, whereas she tries to speak English at school.
Pena chose in-person learning this fall because distractions at home prevent her from concentrating on her work. She dislikes being on a computer for long periods of time, and Schoology, the learning management system that the district uses, sometimes confuses her.
Of the 473,004 students enrolled this year in the state’s public schools, 39,265, or 8.3%, are English language learners. English as Secondary or Other Language licenses issued in the state total 7,693.
Nohora Carson, a Spanish teacher at Conway High School and native of Colombia, said she works closely with the Hispanic population in her school district. This semester has been better than the spring, she said.
“At school, they are not only learning the content from each subject, but also from what the teachers speak, from what the students speak,” Carson said. “They are learning so much more English from being immersed in school.”
Springdale, the state’s largest district, also has the largest number of English language learners in Arkansas at 7,722, about 20% of the state’s total, according to state data.
Carrie Bradow, Springdale’s director of English as a second language programs, said the district put together quick video tutorials in the spring to help parents understand the content of the school work students received and how to help their children through the transition to the alternative method of instruction.
Springdale continues to look for ways to provide additional support for English language learners and their families. The district continues to offer a family literacy program to help parents learn English and better understand how to support their children’s educations. The program serves 142 parents, Bradow said.
In addition, lessons posted to the district’s virtual platforms are embedded with special features aimed at helping them with their language skills, Bradow said.
Johnston, the UCA professor, said English language learners tend to pick up conversational English skills relatively quickly. They struggle more with the more formal academic English used in lectures, seminars, books and journals.
Academic English requires more proficiency to understand. Students learning virtually may progress slower than otherwise expected, she said.
“So it might mean coming up with ways to meet synchronously with students, or coming up with ways to develop materials that are specific to them that would help them continue to progress with their academic English,” she said.
Carol Andrews (left) plays music Nov. 20 with her daughter, Christina Andrews, 13, as a part of instruction at their home in Greenwood. Greenwood shifted to all-virtual instruction for the latter part of November including Colton and Christina. Colton is a special-education student with a learning disability and Christina has ADHD. Check out nwaonline.com/201129Daily/ for today’s photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Colton Andrews, 6, works on school work Nov. 20 at their home in Greenwood. Greenwood shifted to all-virtual instruction for the latter part of November including Colton and Christina. Colton is a special-education student with a learning disability and Christina has ADHD. Check out nwaonline.com/201129Daily/ for today’s photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Roslyn Imrie (center) repositions a boom Wednesday that her husband made to steady a pair of binoculars so the whole family can view things in the night sky as her sons Elo Eaton, 7, (left) and Zane Eaton, 11, play outside their home in Fayetteville. Zane and Elo are both on the autism spectrum which complicates learning from home. Visit nwaonline.com/201129Daily/ for today’s photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Roslyn Imrie smiles Wednesday as she is photographed with her sons Zane Eaton, 11, (left) and Elo Eaton, 7, outside their home in Fayetteville. The unique sort of instruction normally available ESL and alternative-learning students is difficult to replicate at home. Visit nwaonline.com/201129Daily/ for today’s photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVE PEROZEK Loretta Cochran, right, poses with her children Leigh, 16, and Guy, 13, at their home in Pottsville on Nov. 10, 2020. Guy receives special-education services for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Leigh has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Both kids struggled when it came to doing school online this year.
Amber Graham, a K-12 special education teacher, demonstrates Nov. 11 how multiple screens are used to teach virtually and traditionally at Searcy Learning Center.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
A sixth-grade student works on a laptop during in-person instruction Nov. 11 at Searcy Learning Center.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Amber Graham, a K-12 special education teacher, records a virtual lesson Nov. 11 in her office at Searcy Learning Center.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Special Education Licensure
The state lists 12,655 licenses issued in special education. Students in Arkansas public schools last year with disabilities totaled 66,339.
The numbers below are those who are in the Arkansas Educator Licensure System as being licensed, not necessarily teaching. An indivudual may hold more than one license.
Instructional specialist, preschool-4th: 5,329
Instructional specialist, 4th-12th: 4,985
Hearing specialist, preschool-4th: 116
Hearing specialist, 4th-12th: 116
Vision specialist, 4th-12th: 102
Early childhood, integrated, preschool-kindergarten: 87
Vision specialist, preschool-4th: 78
Resource elementary, kindergarten-6th: 46
Visual, kindergarten-12th: 27
Endorsement, ages 3-4: 21
Hearing, kindergarten-12th: 17
Resource English, 7th-12th: 16
Resource math, 7th-12th: 11
Resource science, 7th-12th: 6
Early childhood, integrated, preschool-4th: 2
Visually impaired, 7th-12th: 1
Source:n Arkansas Department of Education, Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. Data from Nov. 13, 2020.
Dave Perozek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWADaveP.