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Special concern for special needs students amid pandemic

For months, educators and administrators have toiled over ways to effectively educate kids through remote learning or social distancing without allowing them to fall behind.

Students with special needs require even more thought and creativity.

Special Education is largely about finding the right resources and environment to make progress possible for each particular students based on their needsthat particular student.

COVID-19, however, took away a lot of the available options to make that happen, and the concern is the gap that already existed between kids with and without special needs is only growing wider.

When Jasmarie Torres was young, her parents recognized she had sensory processing disorder, and more recently they noticed she was bothered by loud noises and certain textures of food or clothing.

She was eventually diagnosed with a form of autism.

The real challenges associated with her disability began in March when the governor ordered schools closed for in-person learning.

"It was a nightmare for us," recalls her mother, Candice Tyson, "it kind of makes me emotional thinking about it."

Without the same help Jasmarie had on campus at French Elementary in Widefield School District 3, her family struggled to move forward.

"It went from her having constant meltdowns because I didn't know how to teach her the way that she needed to learn, or me just kind of giving up and saying 'I can't do this' because I don't know how to teach her," she says.

Jasmine's parents thought she would be able to go back this fall without having to wear a mask, which would aggravate her condition, but two days before school began, she was told that would not be the case.

"The school counselor called me and informed me that even though Jasmarie had a doctor's note that she would still be required to wear a mask," she recalled.

In a statement to KRDO, District 3 said students with a doctor's note don't have to wear a mask, and they do work with families to accommodate students with special needs, so it's unclear exactly where the breakdown occured in this case.

Jasmine's situation, however, highlights the broader struggles that many parents face when trying to navigate this new learning environment.

Some of those parents sought help from PEAK Parent Center.

"I think we view ourselves as the guide by their side," said Missy Sieders, a parent advisor at Peak.

The organization providing parents, and sometimes teachers, guidance and resources to find the best possible solutions for students with special needs.

Sieders says the coronavirus increased their incoming calls and emails by 20 to 30 percent.

"It's definitely added a significant layer of complexity in terms of helping students to be successful."

However, despite the new challenges, Sieders pointed out that federal education requirements have not changed.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all disabled children be offered a "free and appropriate public education", and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced earlier this year that no waivers would be granted, meaning students must continue to make progress.

"There is no lesser responsibility on the school districts to provide a free and appropriate public education than there was before," explains Sieders, "nothing in that law has changed."

So how far should districts have to go to accommodate students with special needs?

Dr. Paul Foster, the Executive Director of the Exceptional Student Services Unit at the Colorado Department of Education, says while schools don't have to replicate the exact setting that existed before the pandemic, they should be finding solutions that are possible.

"There may be some situations where parents and schools look at a particular service for a particular child, and they have to say this just isn't going to work in a remote setting, but these things will work, so we're going to proritize these," he said.

Both Dr. Foster and Sieders agree that the most important thing for families to do is communicate with your campus or district.

"Almost all the time, when we make sure parents and special ed directors are talking, the issues are resolved," says Foster.

"Kids education is always better if it's a partnership between parents and the schools," adds Sieders, "and that partnership has to be a conversation."

"Pick up the phone, send those emails, get a conversation started."

And if the first call doesn't work, Sieders recommending trying a second time, or a third time, at both the campus and district levels.

If that still doesn't work, it might be time to reach out to the state for help, or to an organization like Peak Parent Center.

Click here to visit Peak's website.

Although PEAK serves as Colorado's federally-designated Parent Training and Information Center, it is also a non-profit, and depends heavily on donations to operate.

A virtual fundaiser is underway right now, and can be found at the following link:

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Bart Bedsole

Bart is the evening anchor for KRDO. Learn more about Bart here.

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