Is virtual learning meeting the needs of special ed students? Loudoun County parents say ‘no’

As a fall semester of virtual learning has begun amid the coronavirus pandemic, many students and parents across the D.C. region have faced the same set of challenges. But parents of special education students in Virginia’s Loudoun County said distance learning has been especially hard for their children.

The Loudoun County School Board held its regular meeting Tuesday night to cap the first day of the new school year.

“Students and educators missed seeing each other in person and at the same time there clearly was significant enthusiasm regarding the start of the school year,” said Loudoun County School Superintendent Eric Williams.

During the public comments period, some parents spoke out about the challenges of distance learning. Parents of special education students brought up some of the unique difficulties online learning poses for special needs students.

“I am alone during the day and cannot provide the adequate help and assistance that I need being one person with two kids with autism that need individual attention and education, where 50% of a child’s education is socialization and emotional,” said Catherine Dowd, a mother of two children with autism, ages 4 and 6.

“I just want to say this has been the … hardest time in my entire life,” she said.

While Loudoun County has opened the school year with nearly all its students learning virtually, it’s aiming to phase in some hybrid learning Oct. 13, giving some students a couple days of week of in-classroom time.

The plans would first target special education students and English-language learners, those with the greatest challenges from learning at home.

But one mother complained to the school board that her child with Down syndrome, who is in the general student population, won’t be eligible for in-classroom learning with the special education students.

“I’m asking you why special education is going back to school but not allowing my daughter … just to have the related services in the school?” asked Elisabeth Noriega.

Other parents voiced concerns that parents of students with Individual Education Plans are being asked to sign a new consent form that they don’t completely understand or that they believe gives the county too much authority to change their child’s learning plan without parental consent.

“LCPS went from a one-paragraph, easy-to-understand consent statement to five paragraphs filled with legal terminology, just hard to understand,” said Theresa Wesley, a parent of two students, one a special education student.

“It would allow unilateral changes by Loudoun County Public Schools based on very vague and ambiguous terms, it would change delivery of services without parents’ consent,” said Levin Scott, a parent of a 3rd grader with autism.

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Parents of non-special education students also took time to tell the school board the importance of getting all kids back into classrooms as soon as possible.

“The gathering of students in a classroom provides so much more than just learning, it provides the irreplaceable opportunities for socialization and belonging,” said a woman who told the school board she was the grandmother of three Loudoun County public school students.

Video of Tuesday’s Loudoun County School Board meeting is below.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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