ROSWELL, Ga. — When COVID-19 shut down face-to-face instruction in Fulton County Schools in March, Scott Jeffries was like many parents with concerns for their children learning in a virtual environment.

He was especially concerned for his son, Jake, a rising freshman at Roswell High School, who has Down Syndrome and receives special education services. It turns out he was right to be concerned.

Instead of the daily, focused instruction that Jake received in school, his son’s school week consisted of two weekly virtual sessions, approximately an hour in length, where students in his small, self-contained class would gather.

“It basically ended up with the students talking to each other about what they had for breakfast,” Jeffries said.

Each child has an Individualized Education Plan with a focus on how to meet the student’s unique needs. In Jake’s small group of students, the needs are across the board, but the resources were all the same.

Jeffries said he was devastated to learn Fulton Schools will resume virtual instruction this month. This leaves he and his wife to continue working from home, while trying to meet Jake’s educational needs, along their two other children.

“This is my frustration…there are 10 to 20 buildings [in Roswell alone] they can open up for special needs services,” Jeffries said. “They are not even trying to see if they can do it. When kids are already five steps behind other kids, [the district] is setting them up for more failure.”

Special education classes are small by design, allowing easy social distancing. Even a few hours a day would be a huge benefit to help retain their skills, Jeffries noted.

Virtual classes have limits

In Fulton County Schools, approximately 17 percent of students — about 16,000 students — are served in classes where instruction is tailored to their special needs. Virtual instruction makes this nearly impossible.

Fulton School leaders admit the decision to move to virtual in March was a quick one without clear plans initially. This year, Fulton’s phased reopening could allow limited in-person instruction after Labor Day, for short time frames, for PreK-2 and special education students.

“We fully understand various populations of students require services above their non-disabled peers [so] 180 minutes of face to face will be provided,” said Chris Matthews, assistant superintendent of Student Support Services.

Jeffries said this is a “minor concession” to the much larger problem of keeping students with special needs fully engaged with the services they require.

“[Phase One] means Jakes gets three hours a week of education instead of zero,” Jeffries said. “The second phase goes to a half a day a week. How does this differ from three hours?”

He said many “typical’ students struggle with online learning, but most are able to rebound from setbacks. That is not the case with kids with special needs. After three months of virtual learning and a summer with few resources, Jeffries said there has been a clear loss of learning from where Jake was in March.

“There has been huge regression,” Jeffries said. “Jake needs constant repetition and a routine. Home is his ‘safe’ space and school is where he learns. He struggles with [understanding] home is now where he learns.”

In talking with other parents, Jeffries said the consensus was universal about the failure of the spring semester for special needs students. All were struggling to provide resources and instruction to their children.

Tough on a single mother

Single parent Kelly Pierce is struggling to be her son’s teacher, meet his educational needs, while working full time to keep food on the table and the lights on.

“The day I learned [Fulton] was going virtual, kicked me in the stomach,” Pierce said. “I don’t want a pity party…I know people have lives more difficult than mine, but it’s hard and a whole level of craziness.”

Her son is on the autism spectrum and receives speech and occupational services — neither of which translates easily into a virtual delivery.

“He struggles to speak and be heard on the microphone,” Pierce said. “He needs to be face to face with his teachers and go back to what he knows.”

Jeffries said emails and calls to the school district expressing his concerns landed him in a circular rotation of expressed concerns, then handoff to someone else.

“[Everyone] was nice, they quickly replied, then sent it to someone else to address,” Jeffries said. “But no one said anything about making any changes or help.”

The school district says it is trying to address the situation.

Assistant Superintendent Matthews said plans are being made to try and make up gaps created by the disruption in special education services. These may include after-school/weekend options, mini camps during school breaks and specialized summer recovery opportunities.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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