Students with developmental disabilities are working hard to get back on track after a year of virtual instruction deprived them of in-person education and programs that are essential for their development.
Many parents and special education teachers had a difficult time adjusting classes for disabled students. Andrea Ruppar, an assistant professor of special education at UW-Madison, says there was no existing guide for teaching those students virtually.
“We never gave a thought to how we would teach a student with a developmental disability remotely prior to this pandemic,” she says. “It wasn’t part of our research. All of our evidence-based practices for providing instruction to kids with developmental disabilities has to do with very intensive instruction that involves various kinds of prompts. Those kinds of things, we can’t do them over remote instruction.”
Beth Swedeen is the Executive Director of the Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, a group that advocates for Wisconsinites with disabilities. She says the long-term impact of virtual education, and the accompanying isolation, is still being determined.
“The big thing though is that families were really worried about the social isolation for their kids, because they really need that practice and engagement for their children,” Swedeen says. “And it was really hard to explain to children who love the routine that things were on pause. You know, a lot of families reported regression in not just academic skills but in behavioral things.”
Margarita Rubio, a parent of a student with developmental disabilities, says that when Madison’s schools pivoted online last year, it felt like her son was ‘left by the wayside.’
“Many students were not able to participate in the other activities the other students were doing. Virtual schooling was pretty much non-existent in some households because of their challenges and difficulties,” she tells WORT. “Many children lost so much. They regressed, versus pushing forward. Now the school year will be extra difficult and extra hard for them.”
Rubio is a member of Madtown Mommas and Disability Advocates, a four-mom coalition that acts as a go-between for parents of students with disabilities and Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) administrators. She says that district leaders are trying to meet the individual needs of disabled students.
“They really are trying, we are keeping the lines of communication open,” she says. “It just varies, there’s just so much. Not only are the parents and children stressed and overloaded, the staff are as well. We’ve just been really, really trying hard to make sure their needs are known.”
Martha Siravo, the President of Madtown Mommas, says the district has gotten better at addressing the needs of students with developmental disabilities since the pandemic began.
Says Siravo: “I think there’s been a lot of awareness that’s been raised, but I also think they’re starting to listen. Last year, we fell into a hole and there was not a lot of clear messaging around what a student who needed individualized support, what do they actually need. Not only with their academics, but with their social experiences, too.”
MMSD, in response to surging COVID-19 cases, has instituted a number of new health protocols to prevent spreading the coronavirus.
That includes a masking policy, a pending vaccine mandate for district staff and a virtual education option for some students — which filled up less than a week after enrollment opened.
Siravo says that many parents who applied are weighing whether or not to commit to the virtual program or in-person instruction, neither of which is an easy choice. The virtual option may mean further depriving the students of in-person interaction. But, developmentally disabled students’ ability to tolerate masks is also an issue.
“I know a lot of people are more comfortable going back because of the mask option, but it really does depend on the students, how they handle wearing the mask for a full day and if they’re capable of doing so,” Siravo says.
All of these issues are further compounded by near-stagnant special education funding from the state.
In his 2021-2023 state budget, Governor Tony Evers proposed covering 50% of schools’ special education spending. The Republican-controlled state legislature slashed that proposal, and now the state will only cover up to 30% of special ed spending.
That’s a modest increase from the 28% funding rate approved in the 2019 state budget. That 2019 agreement, which raised the funding rate up from 25%, was the first time Wisconsin had increased special education funding in more than a decade.
Heather DuBois Bourenane, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network — a group that advocates for teachers and students — says the modest increases don’t go far enough.
She says that Wisconsin’s school districts now have to cover the increased cost of pandemic special education with what is essentially the same amount of money as they had pre-pandemic.
“Districts are forced to fill the gap by taking funds out of their general fund,” Bourenane says. “That amounts to over a billion dollars a year districts are spending out of their general funds to cover those costs.”
Bourenane adds that, over the past several decades, the state has been covering less and less of the costs associated with special education.
“In the mid-80s, we actually reimbursed at 100% one year. We’ve been on a downward trajectory ever since, and now are at what is an embarrassing low of thirty percent.”
One person affected by those cuts is Margarita Rubio’s son, Joshua. In 2019, he testified before the state’s budget committee on the impact diminishing special education funding has had on his school experience.
“My school needs more people to help with the kids,” he told committee members. “If I had someone there for me, I would do better in class. It’s hard to keep it together when I get bullied. It hurts me so much when kids say and do mean things, that I want to run into the road and kill myself. If there were more aids and teachers, they would see the kids being mean to me.”
As districts work to get developmentally disabled students back into classrooms, Bourenane says that each child should be approached individually — as opposed to using a one-size-fits-all method.
“Some of the talk that we’re hearing about so-called ‘learning loss’ is not really helpful,” she tells WORT. “Our kids haven’t ‘lost’ anything, our kids are exactly where they are. And we need to meet them there. So whether or not we were able last year to provide everything our kids needed — which we know we weren’t — all the kids have struggled in various ways… We don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to standardize something that’s unique to each child.”
Ruppar has two points of advice for how parents and teachers can help meet the needs of students with developmental disabilities.
Ruppar says that, while transitioning back to in-person school, establishing daily routines for students and prioritizing communication opportunities when possible are essential. She explains that both of those areas were heavily affected by the pandemic and virtual education.
PHOTO: Austin Pacheco / Unsplash