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Why Distance Learning is a Nightmare for Special Needs Kids

School is closed for the rest of the year in Washington state.


The first quarter of high school is over and my child has earned exacly ZERO credits. My at-risk child with special needs is now a quarter through her freshman year, already behind with very little hope for improvement.

Back in March when distance learning began, I wrote a post called Special Ed During School Closures: It’s Not About the Academics. If you have time, the post is well worth reading, but to sum it up, “Here in the US, it is school districts that deliver many essential therapies to kids past the age of three. Once kids age out of early intervention (Birth to Three) but still need services they are moved to the local school district and given an IEP.

Why distance learning is a nightmare for special needs kids

The School System Has Utterly Failed My Special Needs Kids

Now, sadly, seven months later, I can say the school system has utterly and completely failed my children with special needs. I reminded myself daily during the lockdown that these were unplanned times for everyone. I did my best to extend grace to the school system. My daughter did not engage at all online. For her, school stopped in March 2020. Now, my typical kids could go without school for six months with very few lingering issues. They would fill their time reading, exploring, learning. Not so for my children with special needs.

When distance learning began, we requested hard copies of schoolwork for my daughter. Instead of textbooks, we were repeatedly sent unreadable copies of textbooks.

Distance learning for special needs students.

As you can see, someone took the time to photocopy these, vertically…the copies are dark, and due to distortion near the center binding, even Chuck and I could not read these. This is for a child who has reading in her IEP. And this didn’t just happen once, it happened week after week. When I requested textbooks I was told I couldn’t have one because “it might not be returned”. Nevermind that the school handed out Chromebooks to every single student who requested one.

Distance Learning: Checking In, Checking Boxes

The school checked in once or twice to, “see how it was going”. I told the truth. It was horrible. My child could not engage online, the copies of the work we were sent were unreadable, our internet was cutting out, she was doing nothing. The response was, “oh, I’m sorry to hear that”. Nothing was done to try to help her. It was completely obvious the call was made to check off a box…they had contacted us. Next.

June 25th I received my daughter’s IEP update which read, “From parent reports, [child’s name] completed most of her assignments”.  I assume the “from parent reports” was because she didn’t turn in a single assignment online. I immediately sent an email to the school requesting that IEP be corrected.

1. It wasn’t true and;

2. If this wasn’t over by the fall, I wanted the truth reflected in her record that this was not working.

Advocating is Part of My Job

I filled out every survey that came our way from the district. I participated in every zoom meeting for parents. This fall, I emailed the principal, director or Special Services, IEP case manager, and district superintendent. I spoke to each one of them (with exception of the director of special services) on the phone. I expressed my concerns and the challenges with distance learning. Our district was offering no “hard copies” of work this year, distance learning only. I spoke to the superintendent and she made an exception for my daughter. I was thrilled!

Two weeks into the school year, I still had not recieved a single book, paper, or item of schoolwork for my child. When I received her schedule her four classes were Spanish, Marketing, Reading/Writing, and Environmental Biology. You might notice a lack of math…

How Many Classes Can Kids Balance?

How Many Classes Can a Kid Balance?

Last year the high school switched to eight classes instead of six (that’s a big load for anyone)! In the spring they found that juggling eight online classes was too much for kids, so they decided the first nine weeks of school would be periods 1-4, the second nine weeks periods 5-6. This means, no math at all for the first nine weeks of school, for my child with math in her IEP.

In addition, Spanish (online or at home with a book) is not going to work for a child with reading (in English) in her IEP. I managed to get that swapped out for ceramics.

How Distance Learning Works with an IEP

When speaking to the principal earlier this week, I was told

  1. No, she would receive no math or math support for the first nine weeks of school.
  2. Ceramics would consist of watching videos online and doing assignments.
  3. Her IEP support for Reading/Writing would be done via zoom. It was her responsibly to log in and request this help.
  4. I was given no information about how Environmental Biology would work, but honestly, this was the least of my concerns.
  5. When I asked specifically about how her IEP minutes were going to be met, I was told those could be accessed during “office hours” online, where she could talk to a teacher via zoom and ask for help.
2017-2018 First day of school.

Sadly, none of this, none of it, will work for my child with special needs. There is a reason why, even with 20 years experience, I have chosen to send my children with special needs to school...they need the support they should receive through their IEP’s. I should add, my children also have “social skills” on their IEP’s which, of course, can’t be done via distance learning.

I am so, so disappointed this is how it is playing out. I know my children are not the only ones losing out and I also know I am in a position of privilege having the time and resources to advocate for my children. Many parents don’t have that. And still, it is getting me (and them) nowhere.

School is closed for the rest of the year in Washington state.

To add insult to injury, yesterday’s communication from the district celebrated having students on campus for some of our CTE (career and technical education) classes that require learning in our labs and shops.” Yes, I understand metalwork and woodshop can’t exactly be done online but neither can adequate special education. To me, this stings of my children not being as important as typical students.

Yes, Your Kids Can Attend School…if You Pay the YMCA

In addition, our district is now partnering with the YMCA to offer childcare (at the school) for families who need it…for $15 a day. To quote from their flyer, “Students will be supported to engage in the district’s distance learning model while in YMCA care”.

Screen time as well as physical activity has to be limited after a concussion.

So, kids will sit in the school gym, wearing masks, doing distance learning on a laptop via zoom, while their teacher literally teaches (via zoom) down the hall. The theory is, there will be fewer kids, so they can practice better social distancing. But here’s how it works.

  1. Our taxes pay for the school building and teachers to offer education to all students in the district.
  2. It is too risky for our kids to attend school in person, hence the distance learning model.
  3. The YMCA can come into the school (that is paid for by our tax dollars) and charge parents for watching their kids…in their own school.
  4. It is too risky for my special ed kids to go back to school…so instead, they will not receive adequate support nor have their IEP’s followed.

To be clear, I am not saying we should just send kids back to school. I am pointing out the ridiculousness of charging parents to have kids sit in their school gym and do distance learning while not allowing kids (with special needs) to access their education.

Osprey Youth Jet 12 backpack review.

An Unsatisfying End

After talking to the principal earlier this week, I chose to un-enroll my daughter. Not because I want to and not because I think I have the skills to teach her what she needs but because the school simply is not following her IEP and telling me they can’t under present circumstances. Although clearly, some classes are meeting and some kids are at the school.

Sadly, not mine.



    • Renee

      Yes, I’m familiar with her and her work. This is actually a light weight crash pad for jumping, it’s not heavy enough for compression…but apparently makes a nice turtle shell.

  1. laurie

    All the years of parents working to have kids with special needs integrated into public schools and supported with IEP’s are being eroded by pandemic policies and regulations that are not laws, but we are forced to change our lives and our children’s futures to obey these as if they were laws and legal. They’re not. I hear your pain for your daughter, Rene.

  2. Mollie

    I love hearing a parent’s POV (both good and bad) about our education system. I teach 6th grade in Texas and meeting the needs of my 504 and IEP students has been impossible. When my school announced that we would return to in-school teaching I was initially worried but we are 2 weeks in and I really have to say it’s been great. We are only enrolled at 20% capacity and priority was given to the students that receive special services. Right now we’re doing something similar to what you mentioned – I’m teaching on zoom and I have a group of 6-8 kids in my class that are on their own zoom classes (although this is not something the parents have to pay for and there is not third party involvement) but our entire sped staff is there and meeting with their specific students one on one (6 feet apart) to help with every lesson. I’m actually seeing these specific kids thrive under this routine. My school is nowhere perfect and even this attempt at normalcy has some huge flaws. But in this one category we seem to have figured out something that works (although I haven’t heard and feedback from the parents so there could be plenty of issues I don’t realize).

  3. RJ

    So what will you be doing with her in the mean time? Just curious…

    While I knew that my kid is not considered special needs, she does not learn well online and is falling further and further behind. This sucks for them all. Her Dr. now thinks she may have a learning disability, but I guess in class instruction and teacher help when you need it kept this from being an issue in the past. We are trying to get her help, but both my husband and I work during the day so not much teacher interaction in a timely fashion. Did I mention it’s her senior year… Yeah… Good times….

    • Renee

      Actually, I need to update this. I didn’t actually unenroll her (I never took the extra step to file my intent to homeschool). I had hoped that since *some* students were back on campus, the special needs students would soon be back . So far, it hasn’t happened. I have my daugher reading and doing math every day and it is horrible. We have two meetings with our IEP team next week. I am hoping to make some progress.

  4. Sarah

    Hi Renee, as someone who lives in one of the best public school systems in the us, I can tell you why. The school is constantly sued for breaking IEP rules. I couldn’t even read all of this post. The amount of legal rules being broken are insane. Even here, where the schools wouldn’t even try to get away with what yours is doing, I have an attorney. She goes with me to all of the IEP meetings. I pay her $150 a time and she makes sure the school is following the law. The school is a business that wants your kids to attend to collect money, and then wants to keep the money. They don’t care about giving services, because that costs money. Here, students with high needs IEPs have to go to school even if it’s closed. All school books are available in an audio app the school pays for (text books too) and if they can’t provide that, a teacher reads to my kids.

    Im so frustrated for you.


    • Renee

      I know. Sadly, I can’t afford to hire a lawyer to attend IEP meetings with me. In the past, with my son, we have had both DDA workers, and his psychologist/ABA therapist attend.

  5. Nanette Crawford

    I echo Sarah’s comments. We too are in what is considered an excellent school district but we had one hair-curling experience after the other. Finally, one year we showed up at his ARD with an attorney. Suddenly, we were getting everything we asked for AND compensatory services during the summer. Worked like a charm.

  6. Jess

    The decision to open schools for YMCA or other school aged child care programs was likely to ensure that essential workers could send their kids to “school” safely so they could return to work.

    I keep arguing with my colleagues that while they might see it as unfair if they have to go back first, fundamentally some kids need in person learning sooner than others

    • Renee

      I understand that…but, I don’t think the YMCA should be allowed to profit from it. They kids could be in class, their teachers are literally teaching just down the hall. Also, they are not asking for only kids of essential workers to participate. Anyone can as long as they pay the $15 a day. And I agree some kids need in-person learning first, my daugther is one of those kids, but she isn’t getting it.

  7. Denise L Key

    My daughter had to call the Washington State special education director before her school district would agree to follow allow my grandson to go to in-person classes like the other special needs kids. Three weeks in and he’s still at home while the school is supposedly scheduling a special education instructor to test him and rewrite his Idaho IEP.

  8. Lisa

    I relate so much to your story. My daughter is 13, 8th grade, and has not done hardly any work in 7 months now. I am a single mother and work full time, at home now, but I can’t sit with her all day during Zoom school. She absolutely hates it and has anxiety that a teacher will call on her and she won’t know the answer. Our relationship is strained so much because of school. Her annual IEP meeting is tomorrow morning. I am afraid to hear what they say and have no clue how to help her. It helps to hear that I am not alone. Thank you for your article.

  9. Elisa

    Hi! I am sorry to hear about how this is frustrating you. My family has five kids and online school did not work well for us.

    The oldest is thirteen and half the time, she ended up doing some this else online since she is slightly ADD (though not officially diagnosed.) She was so bored since half her classes were too easy.

    The second didn’t seem to have too many issues, But she definitely didn’t seem to like it. Eleven years old.

    The third halfway fell asleep or made a bunch of food to eat, because nine year old boys. He had way too many classes and is too hyper to sit still for that long.

    The fourth had one class a week and he enjoyed not having a ton of classes. Eight years old.

    The fifth was in kindergarten and had way too many classes for a barely five year old to sit through.

    Thankfully, we have gone back to school with safety measures. I hope you are able to get through this. God bless. I love your family.

  10. Trish

    Thank you for this. We live in what’s considered one of the best school districts. Because of this we pay crazy high taxes. Both of my kids have adhd and a IEP yet there has been nothing done to accommodate. My 6th grade son recieved D’s and 1 F for his last report card yet not one message or phone call from any of his teachers nor from his IEP coordinator to offer help. My 3rd grade daughter cannot sit thru a single zoom and she has not had 1 single day where she was able to fully participate. My kids are falling thru the cracks and there is not enough of me to go around playing teacher all day. We asked for a IEP meeting for my son and was told the end of Feb was the earliest! When we stated our frustration his coordinator said “let me check whats in his IEP”. WHAT??! Shouldn’t you know this info, shouldn’t you have read it in August? I’m so frustrated and our kids education is turning into a daily battle with multiple meltdowns that will effect their willingness to participate in school for years to come. Desperate for help!

  11. Renee

    Trish, I am so sorry and I wish I had words of advice. I have told our school administrators (more than once) my kids aren’t falling through the cracks, they are being pushed off the cliff.

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