Courtney Williams came home on a recent Wednesday evening after a nine-hour workday, mentally and emotionally fatigued. On top of her standard evening schedule of cooking dinner and tidying things around the house, Williams had an even bigger task ahead of her: assisting her 11- and 17-year-old sons with their schoolwork for the day.

Williams’ 17-year-old son has high-functioning autism. As an 11th grader in Round Rock ISD, he is reading at a third grade level. For her son, who is meticulous about his routine and dependent on his special education classes for social interaction, the coronavirus pandemic has turned his world upside down, Williams said.

District demographics

As school districts across the country grapple with accommodating their curriculum to online platforms, special education programs have faced increasing challenges meeting students’ needs in a digital-only environment. In the state of Texas, 9.1% of students are classified as enrolled in a special education curriculum, according to the 2018 Texas Education Agency’s State Snapshot. For Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs, the percentage of special education students are 9.3%, 10.6% and 12.2%, respectively.

Special education services span a spectrum, including physical, mental and emotional classifications, health impairments, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, speech impediments, autism and emotional disturbances, among others. As such, e-learning can benefit some students’ social and educational needs, while potentially hindering others, Williams said.

“It really, really affects special needs kids, because they depend on being at school to be around other people,” Williams said. “He doesn't have any other friends that he hangs out with except for kids at school. That is his social life—when he depends on going to school and eating breakfast and eating lunch with his peers, that's just his whole world cut off.”

For RRISD, PfISD and HISD, each of the district’s e-learning pages outline curriculum content for students by grade level, with specific coursework and resources available for students enrolled in special education and their parents.

RRISD outlines online resources for functional learning, deaf education and dyslexia services, while HISD relays its instructional services and resources online. While an interview request had not been answered at the time of publication, PfISD addresses the scope and sequence of classroom instruction, weekly breakdowns of classes paired with multilingual and special education resources.

“Special Education is individualized education, so our goal is to be responsive to parents’ feedback about the type and quantity of instructional activities provided for their child, which have included reducing the workload for some and adding more accommodations and modifications for others,” said Maria Gonzales, RRISD Director of Special Education, in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.

Gonzales added the district has received both positive and constructive feedback from parents, and changes have been in response to some parents’ suggestions on the type and amount of learning activities. The situation is fluid and ever-evolving, Gonzales said, with teachers, aides and similar service providers working to provide individualized assistance to each student.

Navigating a digital classroom

Some area districts, including RRISD, offer asynchronous teaching methods, with classes available for students to complete on their own schedule and at their own pace, as opposed to tuning in for a scheduled video call each day. Others, such as charter school Jubilee-Wells Branch near Pflugerville, have set video classes for students each day, along with additional assignments and activities.

Leia Coker, a third grader at Jubilee-Wells Branch, has been diagnosed with what her mother, Amber Coker, referred to as “The 3 D’s”: dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. Dyslexia is a genetic learning disorder that can cause difficulty in learning to read, while dysgraphia is a learning disability that impacts a person’s writing capabilities. Dyscalculia is a learning impairment affecting one’s ability with math calculations.

Amber Coker said Leia reads at a first grade level. Leia also struggles with multiplication and division skills as a result of her dyscalculia. Pairing these three learning disabilities with e-learning has been incredibly challenging for Leia’s learning comprehension, Amber Coker said.

“Dyslexia is very much a contact, a sensory issue. People with dyslexia do better when they can touch, feel and hear it repeatedly or write it down repeatedly,” she said. “What are they going to be able to do for kids like Leia to get her back up to speed, while they're continuing to move on with the rest of the class?”

Leia Coker said she has been struggling with the online classes—not only because of her learning disabilities, but because of the lack of interactions she has with her friends. She enjoys her counting classes, but when it comes to reading, that has been a key source of difficulty for her.

On some classroom video conference calls, Leia Coker said she joins up to 44 students taught by three teachers. She said she is much more comfortable with raising her hand in class than typing a response, which has proven difficult with the e-learning setting.

“You're supposed to type in a chat, and I have problems with that. I don’t know how to really read and write, so it's hard for me to put the answers in the chat and to keep up with the class,” she said. “So I would rather just be picked when my hand’s raised. Then I can say what, this is what I think just out of my mouth, not with my handwriting.”

Works in progress

That is not to say educators are not trying their best to accommodate and meet the needs of all their students, Amber Coker said. She said she has been on video calls several times with her daughter’s teachers, as well as noticed a smaller class size on April 15. The process, she said, has evolved and hopefully will continue to as in-person classes remain unavailable.

PfISD parent Jean Mayer echoed similar sentiments, praising the collaborative efforts of teachers and administrators to provide for students in unprecedented circumstances. Her son has been diagnosed with autism, severe speech delay and combined type attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and receives both medical and educational accommodations.

In recognizing the uncharted territory the coronavirus pandemic has caused, Mayer said the burden has been split threefold between educators, students and their parents. As someone who is not professionally trained to work in special education, that can make an at-home learning experience all the more difficult to navigate.

“There is no denying that, first and foremost, each week since our COVID ‘shelter in place’ has started with me personally in tears from the overwhelm of it all and I know special ed educators are right there alongside me in that,” Mayer said in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.

For neurotypical students, Mayer said this transition may not be quite as jarring on a comprehension-based level. But for her son, who struggles with engaging in instructional settings, tele-education services have not alleviated those struggles, but exacerbated them.

“The tele-instruction being given to a child who already tends to struggle in that arena, or has any specialized need—tele-education is ineffective for them and it's not a good use of anyone’s time,” Mayer said.

Long-term implications

With PfISD closed through May 8 and RRISD and HISD closed until May 4, parents of special education students are taking it one day at a time, while also contemplating the long-term effects coronavirus-related school closures have had on their child’s development.

Leia Coker is counting down the days until she can be reunited with her friends at school. She has not seen them since March, during a 12-person sleepover at home. She said she is excited to plan out her next slumber party, but is unsure when that will be.

Williams said right now, while her sons are home and she and her husband are working, her 11 year-old often acts as a primary caretaker for her 17 year-old. There are no camps, no daycare centers able to accommodate him due to his age and the coronavirus.

“It’s overwhelming for me to think that he has to be in the house that long and not have any social interactions,” Williams said. “It has thrown him off and then his anxiety starts to get out of control. I can see that the more he stays home, the more it’s going to get worse.”