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'I'm Burnt Out': Special Education Services Falter During N.H.'s School Closures

Courtesy Moira Ryan

For many students with disabilities, school closure has been a major setback. That’s because in addition to regular classes, these students get extra support - anything from tutoring to help walking and eating. And as NHPR’s Sarah Gibson reports, many families are wondering when their kids can resume these services in person.

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Every night, 16-year-old Thomas Ryan, of Londonderry, sits down with his two Scottish terriers and his mom to review - step by step - the next day’s schedule.

But in the morning, if his mom isn’t around to help, Thomas sometimes forgets which class he has and how to find his school work on the computer.

“I’m trying to remember what I did, on which day, and what the name of the file was,” he explains.

Thomas has a slew of learning disabilities - including ADHD and autism - that make it hard for him to focus, follow directions, and socialize.

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Before the pandemic, Thomas had joined student government and was making his first friend in years; he was getting help with his writing, and his teachers knew how to redirect him when he got lost during assignments.

School closure has threatened this progress.

Credit Courtesy Moira Ryan
Thomas Ryan, who receives special ed services at Founders Academy charter school in Manchester, wants to become a computer engineer or make special effects.

“I feel mostly exhausted,” Thomas says. “I’m burnt out from the amount of stuff I have to do to try and keep up with remote learning.”

Thomas is one of over 30,000 students in New Hampshire with diagnosed learning disabilities. And to help them succeed in school, they have Individualized Education Plans - known as IEP’s - that spell out the in-person services a district must provide under federal and state laws. 

But with the pandemic, school districts have had to rethink all these services.

“It’s so new to everybody,” says Rebecca Fredette, Special Education Director at the N.H. Department of Education. “It’s all a learning curve around: how are we doing this and what does each student need?”

The N.H. DOE has sent $1 million to districts to help cover the costs of providing special ed services remotely, and they expect to distribute more when relief money arrives from the CARES Act.

But some special ed can’t happen over Zoom, especially for students with particularly high needs. In these cases, the N.H. DOE recommends districts bring small groups of students with particularly complex needs into the school building.

Barely any districts have done this, however, citing concerns about health and liability, and a lack of specific guidance from state health and education departments. Fredette says this has meant months-long interruption for hundreds of vulnerable students.

“Some of our more severe students have not gotten the one-on-one support that they need because of this pandemic and they regress so quickly,” she says. “Have we impacted their education long term?”

A lot of districts say services have continued remotely for the majority of special ed students, and some students are thriving with new home routines.

However, the success of services varies dramatically, depending on the student and district. 

Several parents in the Timberlane Regional school district who spoke with NHPR say the district isn’t allowing 1:1 video conferencing between staff and students, and paraprofessionals are barred from group videoconferences, making special ed services particularly hard.

Emails sent from teachers and administrators to parents corroborate this. Susan Rasicot, director of Pupil Personnel Services and Special Education for Timberlane, said this depiction was inaccurate, but declined to explain further.

Some districts are scaling back their services, focusing less on teaching students new material and more on helping them retain skills.

That's the approach SAU 53 is taking. But Kim Gillis, a speech pathologist there, says remote learning is still a big lift.

“All of us as licensed staff are working more than our regular hours that we were working before,” she says.

Credit Courtesy of SAU 53
In addition to video conferencing, speech pathologist Kim Gillis posts videos to help her special ed students and their parents review skills.

Gillis normally works in SAU 53’s Allenstown and Pembroke preschools, which focus on services for students with special needs.

She now packs her schedule with Zoom calls with students to help them maintain their speech skills. And in most cases, she needs parents to supervise.

“I think what we’re asking for many families is very hard,” she says. “So let’s say they have me for a speech session, they have an educator session, an OT [occupational therapy] session, and some of our kids have a PT [physical therapy] session? That’s a lot of sessions to call in for.”

And calling in has its limitations. 

Thomas Ryan, the 16 year old from Londonderry, is meeting with his paraprofessional and writing specialist via Zoom. But the internet connection is spotty, and it’s been hard to make progress. 

His mom, Moira Ryan, hopes he will be able to catch up with in-person services over the summer. But no one knows how the pandemic will affect special ed services then or even in the next school year.

Ryan says it’s scary to watch her son miss essential steps of his education.

“I’m worried that he’s missing steps and that he won’t be able to move forward, and that when he tries to move forward next year he won’t know steps,” she says. “He’ll be trying to run when he just started crawling.”

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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