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Remote Learning Is A Struggle For This Special Ed Student. Is Going To School Worth The Risk?

Ian, a high school senior with special needs, waters his garden beds in his back yard. Gardening is one of his favorite hobbies, and one way he tries to manage stress during a tough school year.
Ian, a high school senior with special needs, waters his garden beds in his back yard. Gardening is one of his favorite hobbies, and one way he tries to manage stress during a tough school year.

Sarah McKenna had a lot to consider when deciding whether to send her 16-year-old son back to school earlier this month.

On one hand, Ian is failing multiple classes – a first for a senior who wants to possibly study aerospace engineering in college. He was also pushing himself physically and mentally, trying to keep up with his workload while doing remote school.

“The last grading cycle, he was up for 48 hours straight trying desperately to complete his work,” McKenna said. “There have been days he was up at 6 in the morning, and he’s not going to bed until 2 or 3.”

On the other hand, McKenna has an autoimmune disease, so she worries what could happen if her son contracted COVID-19 at school and brought it home.

“I’m sure teachers are like, 'Oh, he’s just not turning in things,'” said McKenna, who also had surgery over the summer. “But with all the extenuating circumstances that we’ve had in the house ... it’s really hard.”

Ian isn't failing his classes because he's blowing them off; it's because his brain can't handle remote learning very well.

He has ADHD and dysgraphia, a learning disability that makes it hard to hand write and translate thoughts to paper. Earlier this year, right before the pandemic began, he was also diagnosed with autism. One of his biggest struggles is organization. It’s hard for him to keep track of homework assignments, meetings and deadlines.

As part of his individualized education plan, which all special education students have, teachers are supposed to remind him to write down assignments after each class period. That doesn’t translate well over Zoom classes.

Something about being at school helped him.

“One of the big things that would help me make sure I get my work done was being able to walk around the building,” Ian said. “Every day I would walk past a classroom I had the previous day and that would give me that reminder that day that I have stuff to do for these classes. Now that it’s online, there are no classrooms.”

Ian is a hands-on learner and relies on visual cues. At school, those cues are the textbooks, teachers and school buses.

At home, his video games are nearby. His dog is barking. He can hear the TV from his desk.

“My mind's at home,” he said. “My mind's just not really thinking that much about school.”

Remote learning has been a totally different experience for Ian's younger sister, Addison. The 14-year-old also has special needs. She was diagnosed with ADHD and an sensory-processing disorder, which means loud noises cause extreme anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. Being at school for her was a huge distraction.

Now, she works from the dining room table with headphones on and a tri-fold board in front of her, in complete control of her environment.

“Once she got into the routine of things, it worked wonders for her,” McKenna said. “Having everything in one space and not having to transition has been wonderful for her.”

Both Ian and Addison are motivated and smart students. They attend Austin ISD's magnet school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. But with their learning disabilities, they need certain accommodations to be successful.

Addison has found that at home, but Ian can't work in isolation.

A special education teacher or counselor is supposed to regularly check in with Ian. McKenna says he’s successful when he has support, but this year, he isn’t getting the same attention because everything has been so hectic for the staff.

“I think it was probably four weeks into school before his special ed teacher was able to start meeting with them to start working on organization," she said. "So just watching the time go by, it was hard."

And that's how the family arrived at this crossroads. Ian can’t juggle everything on his own. Even if she weren't working out of the house, McKenna says, she doesn't know enough to him with advanced math and science classes.

So when AISD said any student could come back to school Nov. 3, the family thought maybe this was the answer.

Ian has to wake up two hours earlier to take the bus from his house in Southwest Austin to LASA.

“It felt very weird," he said, noting that the school felt empty. "Even during transition periods, it just feels weird being able to walk through.”

That first week back was a huge shift: He caught up on most of his assignments. He could quickly ask a teacher a question, rather than waiting for an email response.

"When a Zoom meeting is over, being in person was really really helpful,” Ian said. “They could meet with me and talk with me, and it wouldn’t have to be in a break-out room. I just need actual interaction with people, not over a screen.”

McKenna tried to hide her worry about COVID during that first week, but after a few days, she put it aside. Ian was getting control of his grades and his confidence.

“So for him having that conversation and the reassurance, he just seems more in tune and is understanding what he needs," she said. "So I'm hopeful we're on the right track."

Ian is supposed to graduate in May and is applying to colleges. He has already been accepted to one school with an engineering program he is excited about, but now the goal is improving his grades for his transcript.

McKenna said this year has been challenging for her as the parent to two special education students. Like many parents, she’s taking all of it day by day.

“I just want what’s best for the kids and that’s my focus,” she said. “If this ends up helping Ian in the long run, we’re just going to have to take really good precautions.”

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at claire@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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Sarah McKenna was worried about sending her son to school during the pandemic because she is immunocompromised.
Julia Reihs / KUT
Sarah McKenna was worried about sending her son to school during the pandemic because she is immunocompromised.

Addison excels attending school from home where she can block out distractions.
Julia Reihs / KUT
Addison excels attending school from home where she can block out distractions.