The experience of online learning for special education students in Michigan this spring ranged from better results than expected, to what parents describe as an utter disaster.
For Tanya Haaseth's family, it was a disaster. She lives in West Bloomfield with her three children. Her husband works out of state, so she says she’s basically a single mom most of the time.
Two of Haaseth's children have autism. The 19-year old, Alex, is severely affected. He's enrolled in a post-secondary program in the West Bloomfield School District.
She says it was like a tsunami hit her family when school shut down suddenly last March.
"We were drowning."
"Alex immediately began falling apart without the structure of school," says Haaseth. "He would just ask for school, over and over, and go over to his tablet and hit the image for school constantly. He didn't understand what was happening. And as the months progressed, his behavior got worse. We had to put him in the hospital for a few days."
Haaseth’s youngest son, Dexter, age nine, has autism, too, but he’s not as severely affected. Even so, he needed help with online school. But with one child in a state of crisis, Haaseth says Dexter was on his own much of the time.
"I didn’t have time to sit with him to sit at the computer and go over this work with him, and he really struggled and got really far behind."
In the spring, Haaseth says the only services the school district offered her eldest, Alex, were things he couldn’t do – like participate in Zoom sessions.
Deeply frustrated, she filed a civil rights complaint against the district. Before the district received it, a representative called to offer her extended school year services: two 45-minute speech therapy sessions a week during the summer.
Her only ray of hope now is that the district is planning to open its post secondary program for in-person instruction in the fall, four days a week. She says she isn't sure how she'll cope if there’s a big COVID-19 outbreak and Alex's program has to shut down again.
"It’s been so much, that I don’t know how much more I can take. Honestly, I just don’t know how much longer I can do this," she says.
A spokesman for the West Bloomfield School District says it does not comment on pending litigation or complaints.
Learning how to teach online, on the fly
Alex’s case is a worst case scenario. Other special ed students fared significantly better with virtual instruction in the spring.
Educators like Cecilia ("CeCe") Zaya say they pulled out all the creative stops so students could keep making progress on their goals.
Zaya is the music therapist at the Ottawa Area Center in Allendale, a service of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. She'd been working at the school for less than a year and a half when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Zaya says many of the goals for her students with the most severe disabilities (such as improving eye gaze, eye tracking, and limb movement) usually involve tactile, hands-on therapy. Since she couldn't do that online, one of her solutions was to start a YouTube channel.
"And I actually began the YouTube channel with some of our favorite songs, like "Shake Your Sillies Out," she says, in order to help students feel a sense of familiarity while they were learning online.
Zaya also taught herself to use a program that inserts graphics and images into her videos, to help students learn to connect words and images with actions.
Zaya says for most of the kids she works with, in-person instruction is best. But she learned something unexpected when she had to shift to online teaching. Some of her students have sensory issues related to autism, for example. They can get easily overwhelmed by noise or visual stimuli or changes in their environment.
“Surprisingly, some of my students were doing miraculously at home as compared to school," she says. "So that was a huge thing that I don’t think anyone knew would come from this, but it was really great to see, and you could see it in the data.”
Despite deep school budget hole, hoping for better this fall
Educators say online special ed services will almost certainly be better in the fall than they were in the spring, when teachers were learning on the fly.
"Now, the best we could (do) is not good enough," says Cherie Vannatter, Interim Deputy Superintendent at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.
But Vannatter says compromises are inevitable, which could result in some special ed students falling behind. She says, if that happens, school districts and Intermediate School Districts are required to provide what are called “compensatory” services.
"What were we just not able to provide, and what do we now need to provide, to help that student achieve at the level they would have, had we been face to face," she explains.
Educators say many of the compromises school districts are making are being forced on them. There’s just not enough money.
Abby Cypher heads the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education.
"The state of Michigan is facing a billion dollar deficit in the school aid budget going into next year," she says.
Meanwhile, there's no guarantee the state will make sure the deficit is fully addressed. "I think that anybody who cares about kids is frustrated" about that, Cypher adds.
Thousands falling through the cracks, says an advocate
The "make up for it later” approach for kids who are shortchanged in their individualized education plans is not good enough, according to Marcie Lipsitt. She’s an advocate for families with special needs children.
Lipsitt says federal and state laws are clear. If districts can’t meet a student’s needs with their existing resources, they must pay for private education services.
She says the school aid budget deficit is an awful situation, but the answer is not to let students with severe disabilities like Alex Haaseth fall through the cracks during the pandemic.
“Children that have more complex, severe disabilities, it’s like they’re back in the 1940s, when they were not allowed in school," Lipsitt says. "There are thousands of children in Michigan that sat home for four months, and are sitting home over what should be extended school year services, because they’re receiving no meaningful educational benefit.”
She advises parents who think their districts are violating federal and state education laws to contact their Intermediate School District – or file a civil rights complaint, if they can’t negotiate what seems to be a fair plan.
“Every parent has to decide how hard they want to push their school district to provide the best possible education," says Lipsitt.
Meanwhile, many districts still haven’t finalized their return to school plans for general education students. So parents of kids with special needs will wait even longer in many cases to find out what their districts will offer them.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the West Bloomfield School District offered Alex Haaseth extended school year services before receiving her civil rights complaint.