Parents of special needs children push for in-person learning, fear 'being left behind'

WYNNEWOOD, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- Across Pennsylvania, parents of children with special needs say virtual learning does not work for them, and while they've been trying since March, they say their kids are falling behind.

Alexis Shapiro of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania said her 10-year-old son, Sawyer, has Dravet Syndrome, a catastrophic form of epilepsy that creates learning and cognitive issues. It's something that virtual learning doesn't accommodate.

"Those are necessary skills that he needs later on in life," says Shapiro. "I'm losing those days. I'm losing that time with him, and with a certain amount of regression, you can't get that back."

Laurie Heinrichs of Bryn Mawr agrees that her child needs in-person learning. Her 11-year-old son, Cole, is non-verbal and has autism.

"The teacher offered to do a Zoom call but he picked up the iPad and threw it," said Heinrichs. "It's just some of these behavioral things, for especially kids with autism, is just hard to translate through a screen."

Pennsylvania guidance says schools must adjust services as needed during the pandemic, with Governor Tom Wolf recommending virtual learning if COVID-19 cases are rising in different counties.

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"We recommend and really advocate trying to replicate whatever possible at home, as far as schedules and visuals," said Mary Ann Newell of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at Saint Joseph's University. "Those things tend to be pretty helpful to help students feel like there was less of an interruption than there actually was."

However, parents said their children's behavior has changed with months of virtual learning, whether it's increased forms of aggression, depression or acting out.
"Very isolated, as well as not being able to learn to his maximum potential, which I think made him question his abilities," said Sheryl Zellis of Amber. Her 15-year-old son has Down syndrome.

A spokesperson for Lower Merion School District released this statement to Action News:

Lower Merion School District will prioritize the return to in-person instruction of students with needs that cannot be met virtually. This may include special education students with extensive needs and ELL students. While students are being taught virtually, special education and related services and gifted support will be provided per students' individualized plans (IEP/GIEP). Direct services will be built into students' schedules and will be provided synchronously through a virtual platform by LMSD staff. Students will continue to be assigned to and monitored by an LMSD case manager. Annual IEP/504 meetings will continue to be facilitated by the assigned case manager.

In Upper Dublin Township, Superintendent Steven Yanni said, "The struggles last spring were derived from the fact that schools were not doing real-time, synchronous instruction. We will be doing that this year. Students will have real-time access to their teachers."

However, concerned parents said online learning is not enough for their children.

"I do feel that our children are not getting an equitable education," said Shapiro. "They are being left behind."
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