Students with disabilities are struggling to learn online. These new programs aim to help

Helping the disabled learn during Covid-19.

Students with disabilities are struggling to learn online. These new programs aim to help

Student Alex Dorman, who is on the autism spectrum, needs assistance during online learning sessions, his mother says. The COVID-19 outbreak, and the subsequent pivot to virtual schooling that districts around the state had to embrace, has been a universal challenge.

Families with children who have disabilities, though, say that their struggles are unique and up to this point haven’t been adequately addressed. Six months into the pandemic, though, families may start seeing some relief. Northern Arizona University is implementing a new program in which its education students will receive practicum credit in exchange for working with students with disabilities in-home as they attend classes virtually.

The program came at the suggestion of 42-year-old Sarah Dorman, who has an 11-year-old son. Alex is on the autism spectrum and is mostly nonverbal. Dorman said she noticed her son was finding it more difficult to keep up with his peers in a virtual setting because of his processing delays and limited vocabulary.

She also worries about her son’s social skills, which she said is part of his Individualized Education Program and has taken a hit from the lack of in-person communication. Dorman works part time for a local architect, and though she said she’s lucky because her boss is “very flexible,” it has been a struggle to balance work with helping Alex from 7:40 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“He can’t just log in on his own and participate in class,” she said. “He requires more prompting and … if it were up to him, he’d just go upstairs and read books. He doesn’t have any motivation to stay in class, so we need to be there physically to help him.” NAU students 'thrilled' to start helping kids in-home with school . A family friend volunteered to help Alex during the school day, but Dorman said she still felt more should be done to help families like hers.

She broached the topic of partnering with NAU to her son’s Applied Behavioral Analysis provider, a former professor at the university. He approached the school with the idea, and got a positive response. Ramona Mellott, dean of the university’s College of Education, said her students are “thrilled” by the opportunity to both enhance their learning and provide needed assistance to families hit hard by the pandemic.

“I think it’ll provide great relief to our parents and the community who need this kind of assistance and really address the educational gaps,” she said. “We do not want the gap to grow wider as a result of COVID-19, so this will really help meet the educational needs and it will give our students that hands-on experience.” Mellott added that though the opportunity is different than those previously offered for practicum hours, it’ll be a realistic glimpse at the future for the NAU students hoping to work in special education.

“A lot of work with high-needs kids are done on a one-on-one basis,” she said. “The situation is not unlike what would happen in the real world.” The school is requiring that 10 students piloting the program go to the homes in pairs and wear masks as well as follow all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mellott said the education college worked with the university’s risk management division to ensure the health of both students and the families they serve.

Dorman said that she’s not concerned about safety, though, adding that the reward outweighs the potential risk. “For our family, this is just part of our normal day-to-day,” she said. “We’ve had to be in the community, we take precautions and understand there is a level of risk, and we’re willing to take that to help our son learn more effectively and provide him the support he needs.”

She said she hopes the program continues even after the COVID-19 era, adding that she believes “virtual learning is probably here to stay.” Dorman said she believes the program has the potential to make a large impact on special-needs education. “If it encourages students to work in respite or habilitation or some partnership where they can learn from parents and get that exposure, I think it would be really amazing for the future of education.”

Neither Arizona State University nor the University of Arizona responded to The Republic’s inquiry as to whether they were considering a similar program as NAU. Division of Developmental Disabilities’ 'COVID-19 flexibility' also seeks to help The Arizona Department of Economic Service’s Division of Developmental Disabilities on Sept. 8 began allowing families to receive attendant care and nursing services to assist with remote learning.

Typically, a child’s school would provide the “necessary supports and services” to help them through the day, the department said in an email to The Arizona Republic. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, though, the department said there are “many” children who no longer have access to those services. The division worked with the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, and the Arizona Department of Education to identify services it could provide to students who need more support to be successful while learning virtually.

The division referred to the change as a “COVID-19 flexibility” granted by AHCCCS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and said it is not a policy change. Respite care, which provides a trained person to supervise and care for a member for a short period of time to relieve caregivers, is not a service that can be used to provide support during remote learning time, the division said.

Dorman said she intends to use both options to help Alex, with the NAU students coming to her home on Mondays and Wednesdays and her family friend providing attendant care hours on the other days. Though Dorman said she wishes more had been done sooner to help families like hers, adding that she feels students with disabilities were an “afterthought,” she said she’s grateful for the measures being taken now to help special needs children thrive despite the circumstances.

Below is a video about other disabled students and how they are managing to cope under these new circumstances.

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Raylon Humber
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