Students with special needs face extraordinary challenges learning virtually

Virtual learning is especially challenging for children with special needs

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Back to school is particularly challenging this year, especially for children with an array of special needs.

The Bentons are desperate for 6-year-old Lucas to get back in the classroom.

Lucas is legally blind and has only a narrow bit of extremely limited sight in one eye.

He experiences the world through touch and talk. It’s how he physically moves about and connects with people.

For him, social distancing is a great challenge.

“He doesn’t get that concept of six foot away because he can’t see six foot away,” said his grandmother, Gina Benton.

The practice of social distancing leaves him isolated as it takes away one of his primary means of connecting.

Touch and talk are also the ways Lucas learns. He gets instruction virtually using an ipad, which he can only see a very tiny bit of as he works to learn reading and writing using a braille typewriter and other tools.

Lucas had a great experience going to Kindergarten at Carolina Beach Elementary last year.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better and then when it was cut off in March, it was just the three of us,” Benton said.

Julie Varnam is the Assistant Superintendent for Student Support within New Hanover County Schools. She readily admits that virtual learning is not a equal replacement for in-person classes for many children.

“I don’t think any of us saw it coming to this. With a global pandemic we’re kind of all in the same situation but our students with special needs and our families of students with special needs have a much more difficult task when it comes to supporting their child, accessing instruction right now,” Varnam said.

She says the priority right now is getting the health and safety protocols in place so that when students return to in-person instruction, it’ll be for the year and they’ll be prepared to isolate any cases of COVID-19 without shutting schools back down.

“This cannot in any way replace face-to-face instruction. There’s just no way for, especially our students with special needs, that this is going to be their appropriate learning. And for many, we can’t find appropriate learning for them right now, because we don’t have an opportunity to send our staff in to support them accessing their materials and utilizing the coaching and the prompting and behavior supports, implementing those re-enforcers immediately, or really kind of functionally arranging the materials, so it works best for the skills we’re teaching the student at that time,” Varnum said. “So, honestly, right now, this is about making it as best we can, making it as quality as we can, and then for many of our students, coming up with a contingency plan for how we’re going to attempt to recover some lost ground.”

In the meantime, Lucas’ grandparents are doing the best they can. They urgently want New Hanover County Schools to return to some level of in-person learning and have advocated for it since earlier this summer.

Like many other families, they’re concerned his social needs aren’t being met.

“Kindergarten, first, second grade, those are so important for the social development of children, not only the learning, but learning how to be in a classroom and work with others,” Benton said. “That’s very critical in their development.”

“He misses a lot,” Benton said. “You miss a lot when you can’t see.”

They just don't want him to miss any more.

Benton wrote a letter to the Board of Education urging the board to reconsider what an all-virtual plan means for students like Lucas who face extreme obstacles to learning at home. When school resumes for the second nine weeks, they hope there will be an option for students like Lucas to attend full-time.

According to information available on the #NHCSReadySetReturn website, “expanded in-person services may be offered for some students with global delays who, by nature of their disabling condition, have not demonstrated the capacity to gain meaning from remote learning models.”

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.