Original Reporting For
New Hampshire’s 30,000 special education students are undertaking remote learning along with their public school peers, but the state has not provided districts any guidance on how to deliver the services.
Rebecca Fredette, New Hampshire’s director for special education with the Department of Education, said in an email local districts retain control of how to teach special education students during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have not provided guidance around best practices,” Fredette said in a written response to questions. “While we hear a few stories here and there, many people are so busy they don’t have the time to share some of the things they are doing.”
Fredette was interviewed by phone, and then answered follow-up questions for this story by email a few days later.
Araméa deDanaan, 8, a student in the Keene district, lost her special education support system when she moved to remote learning because of the pandemic, according to her mother, Áine deDanaan. She said she has struggled through homeschooling her daughter without the help they had relied on in the school building.
For deDanaan’s oldest daughter Finn, the transition to remote learning hasn’t been fun but she’s managing, her mother said. Araméa, on the other hand, no longer has the tutors and therapists to get her through the curriculum, according to her mother.
“I have felt since the beginning and have felt every day that the non-typical, atypical people are hit the hardest,” deDanaan said.
deDanaan said Araméa was born with a genetic deletion syndrome and, as a result, she is intellectually delayed and suffers from some physical conditions. She is prone to seizures and has poor vision. Though Araméa is finishing the second grade, deDanaan said her daughter hasn’t yet completed kindergarten-level work in terms of comprehension.
In school, Araméa received services from a tutor, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, and started vision therapy in order to be part of her class, according to her mother. At home, she’s got a school-supplied Chromebook.
Araméa’s special education tutors offered to have special online meeting sessions with her, according to her mother. But deDanaan said that too much time with a screen is exhausting for her daughter.
“I don’t believe it’s good for her to be plopped in front of a computer,” deDanaan said. “Getting her to use her eyes to look at a screen to learn from is kind of a joke. It definitely means more work for me.”
Aside from the issues, Araméa’s disability proves when it comes to watching screens, her mother said she also needs a lot of basic supervision with devices.
“She breaks anything she gets her hands on,” deDanaan said.
Araméa and her mother try to find a way to keep her connected to her classmates.
“If she and I want her to have some connection with that classroom and her peers, I’m pretty much on my own figuring out what to do,” deDanaan said.
As deDanaan is juggling Araméa’s educational requirements and social needs, she’s also trying to deal with a near-total shutdown of her own business. deDanaan is an Asian bodywork therapist and while she hasn’t been seeing clients for massages and acupuncture during the pandemic, she tries to do video sessions with some of them.
deDanaan said the lesson she’s learning is that the special education system falls short when it comes to helping her daughter. Though Araméa has an IEP, an individualized education program, deDanaan feels it is simply a slowed-down version of the regular curriculum and not an individualized plan to educate her individual daughter.
“They keep hammering her with tasks that have no interest to her,” deDanaan said. “She’s great at asking people questions. She is an interviewer and we should be using that as a jumping board for her education.”
deDanaan isn’t sure what she will do in the coming school year. Her own business has taken a backseat during the pandemic, and thinking ahead she may homeschool Araméa next year.
“I am totally revamping my entire business model. And I’m trying to do that along with home school,” deDanaan said.
Keene’s school district is part of SAU 29, and Superintendent Robert Malay did not respond to email and phone requests seeking comment on how the district is delivering special education during the pandemic. Antje Hornbeck, SAU 29’s public information coordinator, referred questions on this story to Richard Matte, the district’s director of special services. After multiple calls were made to Matte and emails sent to him seeking comment, his assistant called to state that Matte “did not have time to talk.”
The Granite News Collaborative was then referred to the district’s website, specifically the daily update sent to parents. That update includes a paragraph on how families can contact the special education department. Matte responded to an email on Friday, reiterating that the Granite State News Collaborative should read the SAU’s webpage.
“Please refer to the SAU 29 website for a comprehensive update. There are a plethora of links and resources available to you. Moreover, if you know of a struggling family, please have them reach out to me directly. We want to help … please send them my way,” Matte wrote.
Matte then did not respond when asked what specific information he wanted the Granite State News Collaborative to look at on the webpage. He also did not respond to a request on Friday to call the Granite State News Collaborative and discuss the story.
The frustration the deDanaans expressed about accessing special education during the pandemic isn’t unique, said Karen Rosenberg, a senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Center – New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire is a local control state,” Rosenberg said. “[With special education] we see different things all over the state.”
Special education is generally left to individual districts to administer, and Rosenberg said some are doing well to educate students and their families. Some districts are getting their special education professionals to go out to student homes for check-ins and lessons while maintaining social distancing, Rosenberg said.
And some school districts are struggling, Rosenberg said.
“We’ve heard of districts just not doing anything, and their kids are really struggling,” Rosenberg said.
Not every parent of a special needs child has the skill set to educate their child, and they may not have the time given work demands. Depending on the home-life for the child, and the parent’s work schedule, the student may not be getting much at-home education, Rosenberg said. There is a real chance that the student is regressing.
“It’s so challenging for kids with significant needs,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said a lot of districts are making good-faith efforts, but running into challenges like not having high-speed internet or connected devices for all the families who need remote education.
“The analogy I’ve heard is they’re building an airplane while flying it,” Rosenberg said.
Fredette said districts have been told to find ways to deliver the support special education students and their families need.
“We’ve told them they should probably be trying to deliver as many services as they can according to the need,” Fredette said.
A lot of that means remote learning with Chromebooks or other internet-connected devices. It has also meant some socially distanced learning with special education teachers. The factors behind the delivery can depend on the specific needs and skills of the students. Some methods have really worked, Fredette said, which acknowledging other methods haven’t fully helped every family.
“Every district has made determinations for how they’re providing special education,” Fredette said in the interview. “I’ve heard everything from parents from, ‘We’re really struggling,’to “My son is doing better than ever.’”
The remote learning at home has been a boon for some special education students, Fredette said, as many of the external stimuli that can cause distraction or anxiety have been taken away and the student is able to focus on the task.
“It’s been a wide range of things that we’ve seen,” Fredette said.
Fredette did not provide specifics when asked a few days later via email for examples of districts that are doing a good job in terms of providing services to special education students.
“When I talk to families I don’t always get the names of the schools when they are doing something good unfortunately,” Fredette wrote. “I know in one district they have people going to homes and providing services on porches or in the yard to support students.” She also cited an occupational therapist developing a YouTube channel to post lessons and once going to an animal shelter to do exercises with pets in one video.
Some special education students learn are involved in year-round learning. Fredette said via email, and plans are coming together now to provide services in the summer term.
“Many students that do year-round schooling attend private providers of special education and will continue to do so over the summer whether remotely or in person. Districts are looking at summer planning now and determining how that might look in their districts. We are finalizing guidance on safety protocols for in-person learning,” Fredette wrote.
Gov. Chris Sununu, as part of the coronavirus pandemic response, on May 26 ordered every school district in the state to hold IEP team meetings for every student identified with special needs to determine if extended school services are needed for the summer. The order is supported by the Disability Rights Center and the Parent Information Center, which supports families with special needs children.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.