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What Online Education Looks Like for a Kindergartener with Special Needs

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COURTESY OF WEST CLAY CO.
  • Courtesy of west clay co.

Before COVID-19, my 6-year-old daughter Lily's daily routine went something like this: Wake up at 7 a.m. Eat breakfast. Get dressed. Go to school. Hang up a coat and backpack and say good morning to her kindergarten teacher and full-time paraeducator. Complete modified schoolwork for reading, writing and math with the paraeducator's help. Go out to recess — run, play, slide, swing. Attend gym, art or music class with classmates. Eat lunch in the cafeteria. Attend speech, occupational or physical therapy. Repeat, Monday through Friday.

All of this was dictated by Lily's Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a document that maps out special education supports and services to help her progress in school.

Lily has Down syndrome and thrives on routine. She loved going to school each day. She gave hugs freely to her teacher, aide, therapists and classmates. She walked down the hallways smiling and saying "Hello!" to everyone she met. She enjoyed being the classroom helper and taking trips to the school library.

Then came Gov. Phil Scott's announcement that Vermont schools would be dismissed starting March 18. A few weeks later, he extended the dismissal for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. What do Lily's days look like now? She sleeps late each morning and "schools" at home with her 11-year-old brother. Her schedule alternates between work and play. Big brother sometimes plays board games with her and helps her navigate a math app on her iPad.

Do we have a routine? Not really. Lily typically has an attention span of only 15 or 20 minutes, and she has a bit of a stubborn streak. From the moment school was dismissed, I knew we would have to keep a positive attitude and just do the best we could. My husband is continuing to work as a fire alarm technician. Nobody wants their home or business burning down during the pandemic, so his job is deemed essential. He's been spending his days off completing home projects. That leaves the bulk of the homeschooling to me. Luckily, I am a paraeducator at my children's school and was also dismissed on March 18.

Our school, BFA Fairfax, has been very supportive during this time. We all knew that we would have to be flexible and work as a team to support Lily's needs and learning. Since day one, Lily's special educator and classroom teacher have called or emailed daily. They ask how Lily is doing and what materials she needs. Worksheets, books and educational games are routinely dropped off at our house. My son's fifth-grade teachers have responded quickly to emails and been very patient and flexible when we have run into issues with technology.

After being home with Lily for a few days, it became evident to me that the daily remote learning curriculum was not going to meet her needs. As a kindergartner, she is only expected to do schoolwork for 45 minutes per day at home. But, since reading and writing are a struggle for her, that's not adequate. Lily needs constant repetition of her ABCs and 123s, and a variety of ways to access learning. That means games. Lots and lots of games. Reading books. Lots and lots of books. Luckily, we already had a lot of counting and alphabet games in our house and shelves upon shelves of children's books. What we didn't have, I ordered online. Each day is different, but Lily is learning plenty.

Starting the week of April 13, Vermont transitioned from a "maintenance of learning" phase to a "continuity of learning" phase, with school districts required to make a plan to ensure that students would progress academically. Our school stepped up to the challenge. Lily was given a school iPad to use at home, through which she can access several math and language arts apps. Her teacher posts a video and a work list on the school's online platform each morning. We pick and choose what to do; throw in a handful of games, books and worksheets of our own; and then post her work online for the teacher to see at the end of the day.

In mid-April, Lily started videoconferencing with her special educator and speech therapist. These meetings will take place twice per week until the end of the school year. In addition, Lily's teacher does a phone conference with us weekly.

Is this how we wanted the rest of the school year to go? No, of course not. Lily gets fidgety during the videoconferences. She gets out of the chair and runs off. At school, her paraeducator would get her back on track. Now it's Mom's job.

I'm learning a lot: Only give two choices at a time. Set up a favorite activity or reward for after completing a work task. Slow down. Repeat instructions. Be patient. And, above all, have fun. I'd forgotten how funny my girl is. I love all her kisses and cuddles. And, yes, I even love her sassy attitude. This virus has reminded me how special time is with my kids.

If Lily were at school, she would be receiving physical and occupational therapy. Home isolation makes that impossible. Instead, our school has given me a list of PT and OT tasks to do at home with Lily, like cutting play dough and "writing" letters with a spray bottle. I'm doing my best, but I don't have the training her therapists do. We all know she may not meet the goals stated in her IEP this year — like improving her strength, balance and coordination — so we're trying to adjust our expectations. It wouldn't be fair to hold the school accountable for goals that were made last year, when COVID-19 didn't exist.

Every day Lily asks me when she can see her grandparents and her special friend again. "After the germs, Lily, after the germs," I tell her.

Still, I have a feeling that even when the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order is lifted, our routines will be different. This experience has made us realize what matters most — friends and family, laughing and having fun. We'll make more time for those things as we move forward.

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