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Can Special Ed Students Get the Help They Need From Online Therapy?

LUCAS BRADY WOODS, HOST: With New York city schools shut down, parents have been tasked with helping their children learn from home. But kids can have a tough time with online instruction--especially those with special education needs. And some parents of those children are worried about how remote learning will impact students with disabilities. My co-host Janmaris Perez reports.

JANMARIS PEREZ, BYLINE: Last year, Rachel Sokol’s two-year-old, Aimee, was diagnosed with nonverbal autism. After months of speech and physical therapy, she saw great improvement in her daughter's behavior. RACHEL SOKOL: Her therapists have just taught her how to kind of calm down and communicate with us without necessarily throwing a tantrum and rolling herself on the floor. PEREZ: Then Covid-19 hit. / Schools closed and so did special education programs for a quarter million students in New York City. Now Sokol is self-isolating with her two daughters in Forest Hills, Queens and working with Aimee’s occupational therapist, or OT, online. One of the things they’re focusing on is improving Aimee’s motor skills, like showing her how to hold a spoon. SOKOL: She'll move her finger the wrong way and the OT is like, “Oh no, her third finger. Move it closer. That's not how you hold a spoon,” and I'm like, “How the hell would I have noticed that?” PEREZ: As much as she tries, she feels tele-therapy isn’t a replacement for the programs her daughter benefits from. SOKOL: They're like, trying to talk me through it. But I'm sitting there like, I don't know how to be a speech therapist. That's why you're here. You know, like, it's hard. PEREZ: Sokol’s biggest concern is that her daughter will stop making progress. In just a few weeks, Aimee has gone from picking up a few words, to screeching when she can’t communicate. SOKOL: I almost feel like we're back where we were before she started. I'm frustrated because the longer this goes on, this could be a huge developmental setback for my child and so many children out there. PEREZ: The Department of Education says they provided a three-day training to prepare therapists for online sessions. The DOE did not respond to requests for more detailed information about the training, but one therapist I spoke with said tele-therapy remains a huge challenge...partly because the sessions rely on direct contact with students. Maggie Moroff, the Special Education Coordinator at Advocates for Children, says to make tele-therapy effective, the DOE also needs to consider a range of factors affecting each family. MAGGIE MOROFF: Based on language, based on the parents work, based on the parents work schedule, based on the needs of the child, based on the other number of children in the household, so it's gonna look really different based on each child and each household. PEREZ: Dr. Audrey Trainor teaches special education at NYU. She suggests that parents look for ways to make home life part of developmental learning. DR. AUDREY TRAINOR: There are constantly questions and dialogues and natural ways of thinking about problem solving that can occur. Things like folding laundry, mating socks, you know, things that really get their hands moving. PEREZ: Back in Forest Hills, Rachel Sokol is still working with Aimee to keep her hands moving at home with a tele-therapy rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” SOKOL: I’ll play it on my phone and Aimee will do the hand motions through the computer with the therapist. Round and round, move on back, wipers on the bus. PEREZ: But Sokol says this isn’t enough. If tele-therapy extends until the next school year, she’s concerned students with disabilities won’t get the longer term help they need. Janmaris Perez, Columbia Radio News.


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