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Learning Lost: Children With Disabilities Struggle With Remote Classes During Pandemic

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The pandemic has stolen learning opportunities from many students – perhaps none more than children with disabilities.

Federal law requires schools to provide services, but those efforts have fallen short over the past year.

One-in-10 Utah students has special needs, which can range from dyslexia to autism to severe physical disabilities. It’s a widely felt problem when requirements, resources and reality don’t add up.

One mom had to fight for months when her son faced learning lost.

The first lesson during Daniel Strong’s home visit with his teacher starts by just getting on to the internet.

“So what do I need to do? You show me,” encouraged speech pathologist Gregory Young.

Daniel is of one of 84,000 Utah students with disabilities who has struggled with remote learning during the pandemic.

“He can’t really log into the computer by himself,” said mom Candace Strong.

But with a brother who has high-risk health issues, Daniel Strong can’t attend school in person. His single mom works full-time and cannot be at home to supervise.

“I kept calling the school and talking to them and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something,’” she said. “They kept asking me, can I quit my job? Can I change my job?”

Weeks turned into months.

“Daniel is entitled to an education,” Candace Strong said.

Federal law requires schools to provide a Free And Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Teachers and parents agree on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), that becomes non-negotiable, even during a pandemic.

“It isn’t ever an option,” said Leah Voorhies, assistant superintendent of student support for the Utah Board of Education. “Once an IEP team has determined the services and supports a student needs, the district or the charter school is responsible to provide those services.”

Eventually, Daniel Strong’s mom filed a state complaint, and the state ruled in her favor.

The Alpine School District would have to provide staff training and compensatory services to Daniel Strong.

“When we tested him, he had lost about five years of progress,” Candace Strong said. “It was heartbreaking.”

Utah students with special needs face extreme uphill challenges, and that kind of regression can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Alpine School District officials said they, too, are working to adapt during a pandemic and learn new ways of teaching students.

“It has definitely been a learning curve for everyone,” said David Stephenson, administrator of public relations for the Alpine School District.

They are working to meet the needs of all students and point to the success of the district’s “Peer to Peer” program that pairs high school students with special needs partners.

Andrew Hutchison helps his peer Camelot learn social skills and business transactions as they sell cookies and drinks to school faculty.

“I’m just here to support her, and that’s what I try to do,” Hutchison said. “I love it and it teaches me so much.”

Camelot’s mother, Rocio Tenorio, calls the program a blessing that has helped as they have encountered their own pandemic struggles.

“Adaptation has been tough, but with the support of everyone, even parents at the school, we’ve been able to get it done,” she said.

For Daniel Strong, the district and his mom reached an agreement for educators to come early in the morning before she had to work. And he is making progress.

“Yes, there’s been a struggle, and yes, there have been a lot of things that have happened, right Daniel? But through that, he has grown a lot,” said educator Gregory Young.

All sides agree, the key to all this has been Daniel Strong’s mom, who knew her rights and wouldn’t settle for anything less.

“It’s really hard unless you’re stubborn like me and determined to get that,” she said.

For parents of special needs children in Utah, there are resources. Strong suggests parents contact the Utah Parent Center at utahparentcenter.org, and the Disability Law Center at disabilitylawcenter.org.

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