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For students with individualized education programs, distance learning presents additional challenges

When Megan McGory-Gleason tries to do math with her son Roger, who is in kindergarten, "he'll tell me, 'I can't do this,' he'll throw a fit, he won't do it, and I can't make him," she says with a laugh.

But he doesn't shut down like that with his teachers at Griswold Elementary School, she said. It's helpful for him to have structure, to have a place to go where he knows exactly what the expectations are.

McGory-Gleason's husband is a postal employee and therefore considered an essential worker, so distance learning amid the coronavirus falls on her.

"I feel like I'm sorely lacking and I'm really kind of letting him down, you know what I mean?" she said. "I certainly don't feel that distance learning is the best for him at all, but what can we do? This is so unprecedented."

Roger has level 2 autism, which McGory-Gleason described as between Asperger's syndrome and nonverbal autism — "right in the middle of sort of what you would expect your average autistic kid to be."

In the past couple of weeks, his speech pathologist has been in touch with different exercises to do and videos to watch, and his occupational therapist sent McGory-Gleason and her son on a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood.

The recent switch to remote learning has been a struggle for many involved in the kindergarten through 12th grade school system, but when it comes to students with an individualized education program, or IEP, there is an additional set of challenges.

Whether for dyslexia, ADHD or nonverbal autism, students with IEPs ordinarily get special supports but now they don't have the in-person help of a paraprofessional or therapist, and those who need the most help with social skills are getting their only socialization through a computer.

Groton resident Jennifer Meakem is faced with the additional challenges of handling distance learning as a working single mother and adjusting to a new diagnosis for her daughter. Brooklyn, a second-grader at Northeast Academy, was diagnosed with dyslexia in February.

"I myself am just now learning about dyslexia, what it actually is, what the brain sees, how it works, what works for her, and I'm kind of thrown into: Well, now you've got to teach her this way," Meakem said.

She said her daughter might exhibit certain behaviors at home but not in the classroom, and now they're all rolled into one.

"I know my child better than anybody else, but when it comes to this, I don't know how to teach her," Meakem said with a laugh. She doesn't know the techniques teachers use to engage students in different activities.

Meakem said her daughter is expected to be on Google Classroom — a platform multiple other parents said they're using — for three hours a day, and when it comes to the Lexia platform for reading comprehension, Brooklyn's teacher can customize it to meet her needs.

Ashley Campbell's son has ADHD and dysgraphia, meaning he writes his letters backwards, and Campbell also said she doesn't know the techniques used to keep him focused at school. Peyton is a fourth-grader at Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London.

"Every day it's like Groundhog Day," Campbell said. "We wake up and it's the same things over and over, and it's the same responses over and over, and it's a struggle to get him to do the schoolwork, because this is not his learning environment. This is his escape from learning, his comfort zone, and now he's not able to be comfortable."

"I like it more when I'm at school," Peyton said, adding that he misses his friends and it's harder to focus at home.

On top of that, Campbell is dealing with the stress of being laid off from her jobs at Board & Brush and a pizza shop and her husband being laid off from his construction job.

'A lot of patience'

Asked Thursday about how distance learning is going for her son Isaiah so far, Kris Savage said, "It hasn't been as bad as we anticipated. He's been doing OK. It's kind of like he works at his own pace, which I think is actually helpful for us."

Isaiah is an eighth-grader at West Side Middle School, and Savage said his ADHD means he struggles to focus and is not self-motivated.

But she said he works well one-on-one, so having somebody sitting with him at home to get things done has worked better. Still, since distance learning just started Monday and assignments haven't been graded yet, she's not sure if what her son is doing is correct.

Savage said this past week, "It takes a lot of patience, and we have some patience obviously, but not the patience of a person who has been schooled in how to handle kids that need a little bit more attention."

Two local directors of special services also shared what their respective districts are doing for distance learning when it comes to special education.

Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools is using multiple platforms and adjusting based on each student's needs, Melissa Dougherty said. Teachers also are providing support to parents, such as helping them create a schedule or providing ways to set up an obstacle course at home.

Dougherty expressed gratitude for the many educational companies offering free memberships, such as TeachTown, which is specifically for children with autism and behavior disorders.

She noted that individual districts are putting together distance learning plans, without a statewide requirement mandating the number of hours.

In Montville, Paula LaChance said instituting distance learning meant first making sure each student has a working device, and that the district has reached out to families without internet to help them get internet through a local provider.

"Parents are finding it difficult adjusting to their own work schedule while now trying to support their children's instruction at home," she said in an email. "Additionally teachers and paraprofessionals are also juggling their own children at home while working to provide instruction to their students. Despite all these obstacles we are seeing wonderful interaction between students, teachers and paras."

'Structure and consistency'

At The Light House, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who can't get appropriate in-district placements, teacher Rebecca Atkins tries to maintain some routine for her students, who are aged 15 to 21.

She holds a meeting with her 10 students every day at 9 a.m., when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, talk about the weather and say how they're feeling.

Atkins has gone to students' houses to drop off things like materials for them to communicate through pictures, sensory body socks to stretch over their bodies, TheraPutty, and token boards to reinforce positive behaviors.

The Light House emphasizes vocational educational and, in normal times, students have gone to work sites such as Fiddleheads Food Co-op and Homeward Bound Treasures. Now vocational education means encouraging families to have their kids help with laundry, chores or preparing meals at home.

Kassidy Brown, executive director of The Light House, said the disruption "has led to many spikes in behaviors" but school counselor Melissa Tracy has intervened to avoid hospitalizations. He also said consultants are making sure learning opportunities are accessible to students who are visually impaired.

To Lynn Cripps, the morning meeting has been a great way for her 20-year-old son Billy, who has autism, to start his day, "because he depends on his schedule so much. So, it not only gives him structure and consistency, but it gives him the opportunity to see Rebecca and see his peers."

Cripps was working full-time as a special education paraprofessional in Stonington Public Schools, so she now feels like she's working from home in Pawcatuck.

"He's doing well through all of this, much better than I anticipated," she said.

Eileen Blette, a foster parent who lives in New London, also has experience working in a special education classroom. Her 17-year-old son, Zach, is essentially nonverbal.

Atkins — who Blette said has "been wonderful with this whole remote learning thing" — has dropped off learning packets, but on days when Zach is less willing to do work, Blette doesn't push it. She organized a scavenger hunt last week but noted that her 6-year-old probably enjoyed it more than Zach did.

Her youngest is "super active and Zach tends to be very laid-back and willing to sit in the corner on his phone," so Blette said that her "biggest challenge is to keep them both happy."

Norwich Transition Academy alters plans

Spring is usually the busiest time for students at the Norwich Transition Academy, a post-high school vocational program for special education students aged 18 to 21.

Lessons intensify for budding graduates on job skills, practice interviews, daily household tasks for independent living and on-the-job training at local businesses, Program Director Tom Dufort said. But since mid-March, the program has had to rely on computer connections for online mock interviews, lessons and frequent check-ins with teachers.

Norwich Transition Academy has 20 students. The year started with 26, but some have since obtained jobs. Dufort expects eight or nine will graduate at the end of the year, and he is still hoping for the traditional, emotionally packed graduation ceremony.

NTA students work at the region's two casinos, Norwich schools' food services program and Big Y. But several have been furloughed from their jobs at the casinos and the students in training at Big Y can't work right now, even though grocery stores are as busy as ever, Dufort said. Because they are still Norwich Public Schools students, they are part of the mandated school shutdown.

Dufort credited NTA teacher Alison Orcutt, "a whiz with technology," for setting up lessons on skills such as job interviews and that offer students choices of online programs that match their individual education plans.

"The most important thing is to maintain contact with the students," Dufort said, "letting them know that we're still here, that they're still part of the program and we're doing everything we can to make sure they stay connected with the program."

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report

e.moser@theday.com

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