Tisdells At Home

Max Tisdell, left, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Prairieville Middle School and his brother Jackson, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the same school, are among thousands of students statewide doing school work at home because of the coronavirus.

While more than 700,000 public school students are stuck at home because of the coronavirus, those with disabilities and their families are suddenly grappling with even bigger challenges. 

"For children with severe disabilities, their world has been turned upside down," said Carla Parrie, a special education director in northwest Louisiana.

"The more significantly impaired they are, like children with autism and several other disability factors, they are put in a tailspin by their change of routine," Parrie said. "So, the families are truly struggling with trying to help their children adapt to new routines." 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the closing of schools on March 13, and they may not reopen this school year because of the spread of the virus.

Even for rank-and-file students the shutdown is disorienting.

Those families are coping with isolation, the uneven delivery of instruction statewide and questions about when students will see their friends again in person, not virtually.

But the closings have set off something of a fire drill for the families of students with autism and those who are nonverbal or who have moderate and severe disabilities, Down syndrome or sight or hearing issues. About 93,000 students in public schools have disabilities.

The moms and dads or guardians of those students, many of whom are homebound themselves or threatened with jobs losses, are now having to play the role of both parent and special education teacher.

"The parent is not the expert," said Jackie Tisdell, whose son Jackson, 13, has autism. "We are trying our best."

For the past two weeks Tisdell, and thousands of parents like her, have forged a new routine aimed at keeping Jackson, an eighth-grader and his brother Max, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, engaged in academics outside of their normal classes at Prairieville Middle School.

Jackson and Max log in to their online classes each morning and take part in Zoom meetings with their teachers and Google Classroom for other activities.

Tisdell said she writes a schedule for Jackson each day and "constantly checks in to see if he needs assistance."

Teachers are flexible about deadlines.

"It is kind of a routine, but it is very different doing it at home instead of going to school," she said.

"It was a hard transition," Tisdell added. "Now that we have transitioned it is actually turning into a really good thing for him. 

"He is getting more independent. I am having less check-ins with him."

State officials are aware of the challenge.

"Some students might need help to focus, attend and stay motivated when they are not in the same room with their instructor or peers," according to an advisory from the state Department of Education.

The agency last week released a wide range of resources to assist students at home with disabilities "no matter what," said Sydni Dunn, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

The list includes distance education models, samples of daily schedules and communication systems, information about providing direct student services remotely like counseling and how to comply with special education rules.

The options range from the high-tech, like interactive audio and video connections to low-tech choices, including books, activities that dovetail with individual education plan goals and curriculum-based activities in reading, math and writing.

Officials say setting up a consistent routine is vital and suggest that parents use a day planner, including pictures of planned activities for young students with disabilities.

Cheramie Kerth, supervisor of special education for the St. Bernard Parish school system, said officials are getting resources to the families of her district's roughly 700 students with disabilities as quickly as possible. 

Kerth said another challenge is the fact that some of the students themselves are susceptible to the virus.

"It has been horrific and horrendous for all of us and also brought us together in a way," she said. "This is truly a state and community effort."

Students at the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired face challenges of their own during the schools shutdown.

Staff members for the schools are using apps, online assignments, Google classrooms, assistive technology, Zoom, Braille materials, videos and weekly family support newsletters to bridge the gap, said Eleanor Wharton, director of communications for the Special School District, which oversees the schools.

Kay Rone Wilson, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said parents she talks to "are struggling with how do I make sure my child does not regress."

Wilson praised the list of resources spelled out by state officials but said a lot of parents do not even know they are available.

The list is at www.louisianabelieves.com.

Students in rural areas are especially pressed by the schools shutdown.

Only 69% of households in Louisiana have internet access — one of the lowest rates in the nation — and quality is spotty for some who do.

"Some of our children, families, live eight or nine miles down a dirt road," said Parrie, director of special education for public schools in Sabine Parish.

"That is very common here," she said. "We can provide them with a device but we cannot provide them with connectivity for the device." 

Parrie, Kerth and Wilson are members of the Special Education Advisory Panel, which advises state officials.

Tisdell is both co-chair of the panel and spokeswoman for the Ascension Parish school system, which is among the state's 39 school districts offering distance learning during the shutdown.

"The best advice is to try not to put pressure on yourself," she said. "Also, reach out when you feel overwhelmed or you feel like you are not the expert. 

"The schools and the school staff want to help and sometimes they don't know how to do that in this environment."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.