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Tracey Mendenhall said her best advice for parents of special education students is to create a daily schedule. With her son’s help and input, she mapped out what activities Bryce has to complete throughout the day from reading to playtime.

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Indiana schools work to assist students during coronavirus school room shutdown

MISHAWAKA — Tracey Mendenhall questions how her son’s education will proceed.

Tracey, a cafeteria worker for a neighboring school district, is the mother of Bryce, a fifth-grade students at LaSalle Elementary School. Bryce has a cognitive learning disability and apraxia, a motor speech disorder that makes it hard to speak.

He requires lots of therapy, Tracey said, but he’s come a long way.

“He didn’t talk. Wasn’t supposed to ride a bike,” Tracey said. “He does it all.”

Now, Bryce is one of Mishawaka’s 987 special education students engaging in remote learning as schools have closed as a precaution against the potential spread of the coronavirus.

School districts, like School City of Mishawaka, are using e-learning tools, lesson packets and virtual instruction to keep educating students over the next few weeks.

The first week of remote learning, overall, was a success, Tracey said.

The family found Bryce’s math and reading instruction and daily lessons via mishawakaschools.com on his Chromebook. They were provided with additional videos and links to accommodations/ tools and resources. And Bryce’s teacher was available to answer questions and provide clarifications.

“We did not have e-learning before,” Tracey said. “To get this together so fast, (Mishawaka) has done an amazing job so far.”

While most of the work was review, rather than new material, Tracey said completing the assignments was still difficult for her son. And now since all K-12 public and privates schools have to remain closed until at least May 1, she said she’s not sure what to expect next.

“Honestly everything is challenging. It started off with just him, but I had to step in and help since the work is getting harder,” Tracey said. “He has a hard time retaining anything. He’s been adding since first-grade, so it’s easy. Fractions, money and algebra are new and not repetitive, so it’s hard.”

Daniel McNulty is the director of the PATINS Project, a state-funded school resource center focused on special education. He said e-learning can be tough for any student, especially those who are no longer receiving the accommodations they usually have at school.

Some accommodations, he said, can be provided at home, but others aren’t as easy to replicate outside of the classroom.

“We’re getting questions (and comments) like, ‘My child just received a paper packet and no communication for an accessible format or plan in place,’ or ‘How do we provide text-to-speech for Chromebooks?’

“A general understanding that accessibility of materials and websites and all content is so critical,” McNulty said. “I’m not sure that all educators understand that uploading a picture of a worksheet, for example, is completely not an accessible format.”

McNulty said some schools — especially those who have separate academic policies and procedures for general and special education — weren’t as prepared as others to adjust distant learning lessons for all students.

“This is a real wake-up call,” he said.

Addressing special education

Barb Michalos, School City of Mishwaka’s director of exceptional learners, said schools are required by law to ensure that all students receive their appropriate free, public education during closures.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all students receive equal access to education, which can differ from student to student based on potential learning disabilities.

Students who qualify for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) may receive differentiated instruction to help them access academic materials. Certain students also qualify for 504 plans, which remove other barriers to education. The legal responsibility to adhere to these plans falls on districts.

Accommodations have been applied to remote learning assignments, Michalos said, and the general and special education teachers continue to collaborate on lesson plans to ensure all students’ needs are met.

Accommodations are individualized, but may include things like: reading text to a student, offering an alternate way to demonstrate understanding, drawing a picture, allowing typed responses, or giving additional time for assignments and assessments to be completed.

“Students across all grade levels have received materials to support their individual learning goals,” Michalos said, “from preschool to Young Adult Services.”

The school district is also working to ensure students are receiving related services, including occupational and physical therapies, while schools are closed.

If a student is working on handwriting, for example, Michalos said, the occupational therapist would give them handwriting curriculum and developmentally appropriate fine motor activities to engage in. This may include providing Play-Doh and templates for letters for preschool students.

“These certainly are unprecedented times,” Michalos said. “It really is truly amazing … to see work groups that typically don’t work together on a day-to-day basis, really pulling together and thinking about what’s best for our students.”

Other schools

At the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., all students are engaging in e-learning. Lessons are provided online through various platforms and instruction may look different for each student depending on the grade level and ability, said Gena Todd, director of exceptional education.

Exceptional education teachers also work in collaboration with general education teachers, psychologists, therapists and specialists to provide “the best possible programming” for that individual student using videos with lessons, PowerPoint with voice overs and internet links embedded in activities, Google hangouts for face-to-face lessons and educational games.

Teachers and therapists distributed schedules of what the day will look like for a student or the order in which they would complete their activities, Todd said, but ultimately the families decide the order of activities.

“We see our job as helping each and every student reach their absolute maximum potential,” Todd said. “We want to provide each student with what he/she needs to be successful regardless of their disability. We want to meet their educational, social and emotional needs as best we can given this national crisis.”

At South Bend schools, all special education students are required to participate in e-learning as long as they have the ability to do so, said Matt Johns, the district’s special education director. Students have access to recordings and can engage in live video-chats where they could watch their teacher or therapist demonstrate the process needed to solve a problem.

Students who cannot participate digitally, due to their disability or lack of internet access or devices at home, have been given packets that aligned to their IEP goals and objectives as well as Indiana Academic Standards.