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Students lost proms, graduations and time in the classroom because of COVID-19.

And children in special education programs may have lost access to services that help them learn. 

“Virtual learning … did not work well for my family,” said Leslie Schiefer, whose son Nathan was in a special education program in Suffolk. 

Nathan is going into eighth grade. He has Down syndrome and an autoimmune disease. Usually, Nathan was in a smaller than average classroom.

Attending school online, Nathan “did not receive any of the services as required in his IEP (individualized education program), for example, speech therapy,” Leslie Schiefer said.

As districts make decisions on what the beginning of the school year will be like, officials and parents have to consider the best way to get services to students in special programs while keeping them safe.

Because students in special education can receive a variety of services, it makes developing a single back-to-school plan difficult. 

Special education services can be as simple as allowing students extra time for assignments or as complex as  full medical care. In some cases, it means receiving instruction at home or school systems contracting outside physical or occupational therapists for students.

Whatever a student needs, it’s written in legally binding documents called 504 plans or IEPs, individualized education plans.

“There were some school divisions that actually told families that they were not providing special education services. They cannot do that,” said Tonya Milling, executive director of The Arc of Virginia. The statewide organization provides housing, workforce training and other programs for people with disabilities.

Aside from the legal concerns, Milling said many parents are concerned about their child losing progress since school went virtual, and how much more the child  could lose with a virtual school year.

“Many students with disabilities learn through repetition and consistency,” she said. “There is a greater risk for loss of skills, academic skills, social skills because there's just such a great amount of time that's passing where students aren't receiving services and support.”

Schiefer is a member of Suffolk’s Special Education Advisory Committee. She says many of the parents she hears from want to go back to school in person because of the risk of their children falling further behind.

Rahim Mahfouz, who is on the Special Education Advisory Committee in Hampton, is optimistic parents can keep their children learning -- as long as school districts help them.

“It seems that there were many inconsistencies as far as what virtual learning opportunities students with disabilities were actually receiving,” she said.

Mahfouz has two children who are in special education programs. She noticed one of her child’s teachers regularly checked in with video classes while the other sent an email once a week.

Having clear expectations for all teachers would help parents manage at-home schooling, she said. Plus, creating structure for parents who aren’t trained educators would help.

“There has to be a schedule of when virtual learning will take place,” she said. “Many students with disabilities thrive on structure and routine, and their families deserve to know what services will be provided and how often. Unfortunately, that was not the case in spring, so that really needs to be put in place.”

Mahfouz said virtual lessons may not work best for every student, and parents and teachers can plan to implement at-home activities that don’t require a student to sign online and try to learn in a way that doesn’t work for them.

“Some students need that in-person, physical touch, or hand-over-hand instruction where instruction is demonstrated,” Milling said. “And sometimes that doesn't translate over a virtual environment. Or if a student is doing the distance learning virtually, but they don't have someone there in the home to help them.”

Schiefer was able to take the time to work with her son Nathan through the spring.

She said he seemed to progress, even though she wasn’t sure how to replicate everything he did at school. She plans to homeschool him this school year.

Other parents will have until September 8 - the first day of school - to decide what the best decision for their child is.