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Distance Learning For Students With Disabilities

two boys lean on a window sill. Hanging above them are potted plants. In between the two boys are three glass bottles.
Andrew Seaman

As Florida schools switch to distance learning, districts are brainstorming how to give services to students with disabilities. However, that may be challenging in the new digital landscape. 

If a student has trouble learning in school due to a disability, they can get an individual education plan (IEP). That plan can include services like speech or physical therapy, and accommodations like extra time for tests.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, schools face potential closure for the rest of spring, and they're trying to figure out how to provide for students with IEPs.

"I don't think with this short turnaround time that it's feasible for somebody to develop to the level and intensity that some of our clients' needs are," says Ann Siegel with Disability Rights Florida.

She's concerned for students who need hands-on services that can't be done online or over the phone. That could include physical or behavioral therapy.

"You know, you can do counseling by video. You can do speech therapy by video, but these all are really just Band-Aids right now for a kid who needs an intensive program that is a complete full day of school," Siegel says.

Pam Lindemann, President of The IEP Advocate, shares Siegel's concerns. Even if districts come up with a solution, Lindemann says it may not work for every student.

"So let's say the county is proposing to do online speech and language therapy, but there are some kids that's... not going to work for. They're not going to watch a TV. They're not going to work with their mother. They're just not a digital learner," Lindemann says.

Lindemann says in these situations, districts will need to make up the services a student has missed due to the pandemic. This can be done during the summer, fall, weekends, and before or after school hours. Lindemann says once COVID-19 clears, districts will get overwhelmed, and making up those missed services will be difficult.

In the meantime, advocates fear children who need highly structured programs, therapies, and more will regress.

"This regression could set them back to the point where recoupment would take much longer than the average student," Siegel says.

Linda Kearschner is President of the Florida Parent Teacher Association (PTA). She says the pandemic, coupled with a shift to online learning, is shining a light on disparities among communities

"We're having to really think about families that don't have access to high-speed internet. That don't have transportation for their children. And that is magnified when we start talking about children with special needs," Kearschner says.

Kearschner says people can't give up on giving students with disabilities the services they need—even if it's during a pandemic.