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'Missing out.' Some students with disabilities felt left behind during online schooling

caption: RadioActive Youth Producer Lily Turner poses with Roosevelt junior Maxford Brown.
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RadioActive Youth Producer Lily Turner poses with Roosevelt junior Maxford Brown.
Photo Courtesy of Kyle Norris.

For many students with disabilities, online classes during the pandemic came with new challenges, and a loss of their usual, face-to-face classroom support.

KUOW RadioActive Youth Producer Lily Turner, who is deaf in one ear and has trouble hearing in the other, has this story about lessons learned during the pandemic and how schools can do better to make sure all students can fully participate.

A little over a year ago, the school day didn't begin with a bell. There were no lockers slamming, shoes squeaking or hellos exchanged as students shuffled through a sea of backpacks.

Instead, they sat at home in front of their computers, learning online.

It was a completely different school experience.

While some kids thrived, it was nearly impossible for others, particularly for some students with disabilities.

I’ll start with my own experience.

I’ve always loved learning and had a strong desire to understand the world around me. But every trick and technique I relied on to get through school crumbled when Covid-19 hit.

As a hard-of-hearing person, learning behind a screen was limiting. I couldn’t lip read or understand visual cues anymore — it was extremely isolating.

My teachers couldn't figure out how to get me transcripts. When I reached out for help, school staff told me the district wasn't paying for subtitles. I was lost.

It was up to me to teach teachers how to teach me.

I wasn’t just missing out on being a student, I was missing out on being a teenager. I was excluded from every side conversation, every little joke, all those moments that remind us we’re human.

I felt alone, but I wasn’t alone in this feeling.

Devan Lauzen is a senior at Roosevelt High School who has cerebral palsy. At school, an aide is by her side through the day, for physical and academic support.

But during online learning, that support dropped off.

“It was difficult, it was hard, it was a lot of maneuvering technology,” Devan explained. "It was just not as easy, because I couldn't get much help from my teachers."

Like thousands of other students with disabilities in Seattle Public Schools, Devan receives extra support through an individualized education program, or IEP. Federal law requires educators to follow these plans for each student.

When learning moved online, it became difficult for students to receive the same support.

For Devan, it was tough to stay connected to her aide and schoolwork.

"We were meeting over Microsoft Teams in her little room office thing," Devan said. "I had to figure out how to present stuff on Teams. I couldn't figure it out."

The disruption during online school caused ripple effects. Even though Devan understood most of the course material, she decided it would be best to repeat her senior year.

Across the country, school districts struggled with how best to serve students with disabilities as classrooms closed and the system shifted online.

Robin Lake directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a non-partisan research and policy center.

"In the crisis, I think these are the kids who fell through the cracks the most,” Lake said. “We should be very, very concerned about the impact. Now, that said, there are a lot of holes in our knowledge about what that impact really looks like."

Lake said more research needs to be done to really understand how the pandemic has affected academic and social learning for students with disabilities.

"What we know, though, is that there are higher rates of absenteeism, incomplete assignments, higher course failures for these kids," she said.

Lake stressed that this is not the failure of educators, but of a system that didn't know how to prioritize its most vulnerable students.

This did not go unnoticed.

The U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation into Seattle and other school districts. The investigation focuses on possible discrimination against students with disabilities.

Some things about online school did work well, and Lake said lessons can be carried forward — things like customized learning, and flexibility to allow kids who learn better online to continue that way.

Students also have plenty to say on what was successful and what wasn’t.

For Eleanor Steel, a senior at Roosevelt , mornings were easier online.

"My favorite thing about online school is that I didn't really have to worry about like, um, like rushing out the door was nice," Eleanor said.

But overall, as someone with autism, she said virtual classes didn’t fit her learning needs. “I have a hard time like focusing in class a lot,” Eleanor explained. “Like online class was harder for me, but in person is not as hard."

She said students would sometimes talk while the teacher was speaking on Zoom, which made it difficult to hear and concentrate.

“I will literally just like almost want to yell, but I try not to,” she said.

Eleanor said in-person learning is far better for her.

Roosevelt junior Maxford Brown feels similar. Maxford has Down Syndrome and, before Covid, band was where he went to socialize and form relationships.

Online, it was difficult for him to engage. He said he found it hard to see the tiny music notes on a computer screen.

When I asked Maxford how in-person band was going, he smiled.

“Yeah, it's fun playing,” he said. “I love people, like I've got friends in there who are my age, and some are seniors. It's fun.”

Seeing Maxford beam while talking about finally feeling part of a community again echoed my own experience.

Until I spoke with Devan, Eleanor and Maxford, I didn’t think anyone else understood this feeling.

Once you acknowledge the neglect and isolation the disability community experienced during the pandemic, you can more fully appreciate moments like Maxford smiling while talking about band.

Every student should get to feel that kind of connection and inclusion. Returning in person does not eliminate inequity, but it does give us an opportunity to recognize and focus on it.

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