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How Remote Learning Upended NYC Students With Disabilities and Their Families

Parents have morphed into teachers and therapists amid a pandemic. Meanwhile, many kids struggle through virtual special education. Here are some of their stories.

This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and THE CITY investigating learning differences, special education and other education challenges in city schools.

When the nation’s largest school system announced on March 15 that 1,800 public schools would shift to remote teaching amid the coronavirus pandemic, it turned the education of 1.1 million students upside down.

But within that seismic disruption are roughly 228,000 children with disabilities who are at greatest risk of being knocked off track because they’re missing out on vital supports that range from challenging to near-impossible to provide virtually. 

With the logistical complexity of remote instruction in mind, city and state officials in April allowed for special education services to be modified or scaled back. 

At the same time, parents have been forced to morph into de facto educators, speech therapists, and counselors — all while juggling the economic and emotional fallout of living through an unprecedented pandemic.

There is still plenty of uncertainty about how students with disabilities will fare once they return to school buildings and how much ground will have been lost. Also unclear is when New York City special education students might make it back to classrooms. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing in-person special education services to resume this summer if districts opt in. 

New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has expressed reservations about the safety of such a move. Discussions are underway about the extent to which in-person instruction might resume this fall.

In the meantime, Chalkbeat and THE CITY teamed up to examine the mix of rare perks and more commonplace pitfalls of online education for students with disabilities. 

Based on interviews with dozens of parents and educators, here are a range of snapshots of how students, their families, and teachers are faring: 

‘I Can’t Do This’

Before the city went into lockdown, Matthew Landfield’s son adored going to his Brooklyn middle school. But after a little over a week of remote learning, the child was frustrated, anxious, and ready to quit. 

Landfield and his wife decided to reach out to their son’s school for help. 

“He was to the point of tears saying, ‘I can’t do this,’” Landfield said. “It didn’t make sense to us that this child who adored his school a week ago would now want to drop out in the middle of the year.”

At the beginning of remote learning, Landfield’s class schedule looked a lot like the regular one, but shorter: up to eight classes per day, followed by office hours with teachers and homework due later that night. 

“‘He relies on his teachers a lot in person.’”

The intense all-day schedule was not working for Landfield’s son, who struggles with organization and time management issues. The multiple shortened class periods made it difficult to absorb information and understand exact expectations.

“He relies on his teachers a lot in person — either through class interaction or after-school support — to get a lot of his learning,” Landfield said. 

Eventually, never-ending email notifications became overwhelming. 

“The digital environment was like an avalanche of alerts and emails and deadlines and assignments,” he said. 

Landfield and his wife, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, spoke with the special

education coordinator about their concerns. Many phone calls and emails later, the Brooklyn school came back with a revamped plan to fit the seventh-grader’s needs. 

The new system allows Landfield’s son to attend far fewer live classes during the day and gives him access to the small group environment he once thrived in. 

To address the overwhelming alerts, his teachers now compile his work in a digital assignment sheet where he can find his expectations clearly laid out for him. 

Landfield says he’s grateful for the school’s responsiveness and finds some comfort in that this situation may force education officials to rethink large class sizes. 

“They knew our son well, they knew his challenges, and they were willing to listen,” said Landfield. 

‘Crying Myself to Sleep’ 

Five-year-old twins Owen and Danny had been receiving one-on-one instruction — including behavioral therapy — before the coronavirus crisis upended traditional learning in mid-March.

Now the boys, students at Hear Our Voices pre-K in Brooklyn, are each missing out on three speech sessions per week, two sessions of occupational therapy, and two sessions of physical therapy. 

“They have to be physically one-on-one taught. They don’t understand the computer,” said their mom, Anna Fridman.

“We’ve tried when they called in live and we tried when they send me assignments, and it’s not possible to implement,” she added. “I was literally crying myself to sleep every night because I can’t possibly implement all this.”

The single mom also has to assist the twins’ older brother — 6-year-old Matthew, a kindergartener in a program for students with autism at PS 24 in Brooklyn. 

Matthew is non-verbal and communicates through a device, and requires prompts from his mom before he’ll make a sound or type a key. The teacher calls in for about 30 minutes per day, but it’s largely to provide assignments and talk them through with Fridman.

“My children are really regressing. As a parent, it’s very, very painful to see,” said Fridman.

“The social skills, the communication skills — it’s hard to see them losing those skills.” 

Fridman said she’s part of a parent group that overwhelmingly says remote learning isn’t working for their kids. She’s emailed the Department of Education a number of times, but says she’s been getting vague responses — or none at all.

“There has to be a better way, or at least an acknowledgement that it’s not working for everyone,” said Fridman, who is pushing for a return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. “I feel like every time I bring everything up, it’s kind of kicked back as ‘Let’s try harder.’”

‘She Loves This’

For Jay Spindel’s 16-year-old daughter, Lexi, remote learning has reaped some unexpected benefits in the short term. 

Lexi, who has autism, has an aversion to being touched, as well as traits associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“She loves this,” said Spindel, who, with his wife, has been working out of a makeshift home office since schools closed. 

For his daughter, remote learning “is the most awesome thing ever. Nobody touches her, and she can interact with them.” 

But while things have been working well now, Spindel is worried that it is “undoing” advancements she’s made. 

“Yes, it’s sunshine and roses now, but I’m seeing that being taught ‘stay away from everybody’ is going to make things monumentally harder,” he said.

Lexi has a packed schedule. She starts school at 8:30 a.m. and frequently attends virtual office hours held by teachers, alongside virtual sessions of occupational and physical therapy. 

She has even been doing extra virtual activities on the side, like “girls night in” Jewish Community Center meet-ups, and rehearsals for an online neurodiverse Shakespeare play.

Navigating home learning has had some hiccups: At one point, the online learning platform used by her school, The Titus School in Lower Manhattan, wasn’t functioning on the iPads students had been given. 

That spurred a strong, negative reaction, Spindel said. And he’s been worried about small regressions, like a return to rocking and picking her skin, and an attachment to wearing sweatshirts even in sweltering heat.

But his daughter is independent in many ways and is eager to get her work done and please her teachers. 

“The teachers were incredible,” Spindel said. “She’s happy because she’s engaged.”

‘Hoping I’m Making the Right Choice’ 

Remote learning may have technically started on March 23, but that wasn’t the case for Anne Yackee’s 4-year-old foster son, who has autism, ADHD, and a speech and language disorder.

“It took a couple weeks to get up and running,” Yackee said, noting her son attends a Manhattan preschool operated by a community organization and funded by the city. “Any sort of online instruction, any sort of [therapies] or counseling just wasn’t happening.” 

Yackee, a single parent who lives in Washington Heights, worked to fill in the initial gaps on her own: She ordered a “dressing board” online that let her son practice with buttons, snaps and zippers to mimic some of the therapies he was missing. 

“‘Counseling just wasn’t happening.’”

She found a book that would let her son practice using scissors to keep working on his motor skills. 

But even when her son’s twice weekly speech, occupational, and physical therapies began to restart virtually, Yackee found that she didn’t have time to supervise all of the sessions on top of her own responsibilities as a social worker at four different school sites. 

“I had to cut [the therapies] in half, because there’s no way I could do them all during the work day,” she said.

Live lessons have flickered to life via her son’s school, typically lasting for about 20 to 30 minutes a day. Recent activities included dancing, drawing an octopus and read alouds.

Attendance, though, is often light — leaving her son without much social interaction.

Yackee’s biggest concern is that her son is missing out on some of the biggest components of preschool: learning through play and figuring out how to negotiate with peers. 

So this week, Yackee made a change. She pulled her son out of preschool and began sending him to a nearby daycare that recently reopened at a cost of $350 per week.

“At least he’ll be able to get a little socialization and structure,” she said. “I’m hoping that I’m making the right choice.”

‘Amazing’ and ‘Horrible’

In one Bronx home, the pitfalls and possibilities of remote learning are both on display in the wildly different experience of 8-year-old twins.

“For one of my daughters, it’s been an amazing experience, and for my other daughter it’s been horrible,” said Anthea Fyffe, the mom of Cayla and Caeyelle Wetters.

Cayla, a student at PS 103 in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, had a neuropsych evaluation in late 2018 that her mom says makes her eligible for a host of additional supports. But the school isn’t equipped to help her — something Fyffe blames on the Department of Education — so Cayla is getting taught like a regular third-grader, despite lagging far behind. 

She gets just 30 minutes to an hour of live instruction per day, her mom said.

“Nobody’s helping her,” said Fyffe. “You can’t teach a child multiplication who’s still struggling to add and subtract. You have to meet a child where she’s at.”

Caeyelle, by contrast, attends The Mickey Mantle School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The school in District 75, which serves students with the greatest needs, has been supplying her with up to four hours of live instruction daily, where teachers read to her and offer small group lessons. Counselors, meanwhile, deliver live therapy sessions.

“Everything that Caeyelle’s [individualized education plan] says she should be getting, she gets,” said Fyffe.

The mom said the issues with Cayla’s remote-learning are an extension of a battle she’s been fighting to get the Department of Education to accept the results of her daughter’s neuropsych evaluation, and the agency’s failure to place the girl at the proper school.

“‘Her sister’s teachers love her, they know her.’”

Fyffe said she makes up for the lack of instruction by teaching her daughter herself, with phonics books and every app she can afford. 

One silver lining: The teachers at Caeyelle’s school are allowing Cayla to sit in on her sister’s live lessons.

“They just read to her, ask her questions, do activities with her,” said Fyffe. “Her sister’s teachers love her, they know her.”

‘Can This Be Over?’

Nicole Dewey’s two sons, both on the autism spectrum, have fallen into a routine. She and her husband keep them to something like a school schedule, running from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with an hour or two of live instruction offered by their schools daily.

“My older [14-year-old] son, he has a one-on-one meeting with his teacher every week, they have several group classes and individual and group therapy,” said Dewey, whose children attend two different private schools whose cost is publicly funded. 

Though occupational and physical therapy can be a challenge without in-person help, the parents have stocked up on therapeutic putty, yoga blocks and other tools. But Dewey’s biggest concern is her sons’ social-emotional health. 

“These are both kids that really struggle to have friendships or relationships with peers,” Dewey said. “The way that they’re supported in doing those things in the classroom setting just isn’t possible remotely.”

The consequences of that lack of social interaction are already becoming clear: The boys are struggling with simple things like taking turns. 

“‘It’s going to be very bumpy.’”

Her older son, Trace, is withdrawing. 

“The more time he spends in his own world, that effort to be with other people just feels harder and he wants to get out of it as soon as he can,” Dewey said. 

When it’s time for a Zoom call with his teachers or therapists “He’s like, ‘Can this be over? Can I get off?’”

The family is also nervous about whether their children will be able to manage the potential transition back to school in the fall, especially as any change in routine requires lots of adjustment for both boys. 

Dewey said Declan, her 11-year-old son, can become “explosive” when he’s overwhelmed. Last year, he was so severely bullied that he experienced significant emotional trauma. 

“Going back to school is going to be very overwhelming,” Dewey said. “It’s going to be very bumpy.”

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