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How Remote Learning Upended NYC Students With Disabilities and Their Families

This article originally appeared in THE CITY on June 17, 2020 by Alex Zimmerman, Lauren Costantino, Rebekah Ward, Veronica Penney, and Yoav Gonen

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.