Dixee Matthiesen’s 12-year-old son, Roman, isn’t sleeping much.
Roman has autism. His anxiety wakes him up during the night. He doesn’t understand why his favorite places are closed, or why he can’t go to school. He keeps asking his mom when she’s going to die.
School closures due to the spread of the coronavirus have put pressure on all families in Washington, but to those whose children have disabilities, the challenges are unique. Children like Roman are missing out on educational opportunities in addition to the therapeutic support they’re guaranteed in school. Outside service providers are increasingly moving their programs online to avoid spreading the virus.
“I fully understand that,” said Matthiesen, who co-founded a support group for the mothers of children with autism. But with five weeks of school closures left, she asks, “Now what?”
“Who has our kids’ best interests at heart?” she said.
As area school districts are gearing up to provide some online learning opportunities to students, district officials are grappling with how to provide services to those children who have disabilities. By federal law, students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education with accommodations in place to ensure their success in school.
Translating that to the web, however, is going to take some adjustment. District officials from Clark County’s largest school districts, Vancouver and Evergreen public schools, announced they’d be contacting individual families enrolled in special education services in the coming days to determine how to serve their students.
“What we’re doing this week is reaching out to all of our students and saying, ‘What kinds of things do you need?’ ” Evergreen district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said. “‘Do you need a special keyboard? Do you need speakers? Do you need physical therapy devices?’ ”
Districts are also advised to continue meeting virtually with families about children’s Individualized Education Programs, federally required documents that outline what services a child will receive in school, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“This is never going to replace in-person learning or opportunities,” Spolar said. “We’re going to do the best we can as we work through this.”
Meanwhile, other service providers are operating their programs remotely. Catholic Community Services’ WISe program, Wraparound with Intensive Services, serves nearly 220 children with disabilities or mental health diagnoses. Those in-person visits have been replaced with phone calls and video chats.
Still, Brook Vejo, clinical supervisor for crisis services, said those changes can be challenging for students. Knowing someone is going to visit can go a long way in regulating children’s emotions, and aggressive children may be triggered by a phone visit and become violent.
“We’re in the process of daily meetings to strategize how we can best support families,” Vejo said. “We’re doing a ton of training and getting as many video options as we can up and running.”
Communication and opportunity
Washington Teacher of the Year Amy Campbell teaches special education at Helen Baller Elementary School. She acknowledged the difficulties families are facing in light of school closures, saying families must weigh a decision between serving their children or staying home.
“I worry for parents who are stressed, and managing 24 hours a day of intensive behaviors of children who are stressed,” she said.
But Campbell remains optimistic the closures will give school districts a chance to collaborate with families for the benefit of students. Students who need to move around during the day may benefit from time at home, she said, or those who need to rewind a video a few times to understand something.
“This is an opportunity to be creative,” Campbell said. “I think we can do a lot of things for a lot of people.”
Jen Cole is a program director for the parent training and information center for Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment, a nonprofit that serves families of students with disabilities. Cole said it’s critical that school districts communicate with their families to provide students with resources.
“These are unprecedented times,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the expectation that a professional would be coming to deliver services in my home at this time, but I do have the expectation that my child’s school will communicate with me.”
Melissa Dodge, who co-founded the moms group with Matthiesen, has two sons with autism. Dylan, 13, and Lucas, 9, are similarly struggling with the adjustments in their schedule.
“We don’t get to plan out a day like regular parents,” Dodge said. “The community doesn’t understand that.”
On a recent afternoon, both boys were relaxing and watching the television. But these moments are rare, the way Dodge describes it. Dodge was forced to call the police recently after her boys started fighting and became violent.
“The aggression is a lot stronger,” Dodge said. “The routine is completely off.”
Dodge is talking to her boys’ teachers, and said the expected online services are a start. But Monday morning, she tried doing a worksheet with Lucas. During a coloring exercise, he colored outside the lines, became upset, and ripped the sheet up. When she sent the boys outside to get some energy out, they started fighting.
“I feel like a bad mom because I screamed at them,” she said. “My blood pressure was through the roof.”
Dodge understands the lockdowns, but she’s still worried. She doesn’t feel like the adjustments are going to be enough to serve her family.
“I really don’t know what they can do,” Dodge said. “I wish we could figure something out.”