Families of children with special needs worry their children will be left behind as education moves online

Anthony Cravalho (right) and Alika Cravalho (left) video chat with Alika’s special education teacher in Kotzebue on April 10, 2020. For Alika, who is severely autistic, just getting used to using the device in this way has been a challenge and requires constant supervision. (Photo courtesy of Liz Cravalho)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, students across the state are logging on to class from home. But some groups of students face significant challenges and barriers to online education.

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Children with special needs have a range of learning differences that often require individualized and specialized learning strategies which can be difficult to transfer online.

Anthony and Liz Qaulluq Cravalho of Kotzebue care for their 21-year-old son, Alika.

Alika is severely autistic and non-verbal, and for him, just getting used to the technology has been a big hurdle. 

“When I tried just a video conference with Alika’s teacher the first time he got very upset,” said Anthony. “To the point of stomping [and] waving his arms, he was getting very angry.”

Alika’s Individual Education Program (IEP), normally requires a lot of hand-over-hand instruction and physical prompting. Which isn’t always possible through a video conference. 

Anthony Cravalho (right) helps his son Alika Cravalho practice writing a grocery list in Kotzebue on April 10, 2020. It’s one of the life skills Alika, who is non-verbal, would normally practice with his teacher but now must do at home due to distance-learning requirements. (Photo courtesy of Liz Cravalho)

For example, many of the tasks that Alika works on with his teachers are “life skills” or skills that he would need to be able to live on his own. Now, in addition to working full-time, his parents supervise and practice those skills with him.

Related: LISTEN: Families plug in as districts flip the switch on online learning

“If I was to make sandwich, it would take me probably two, three minutes tops,” Anthony said. “But if I want him to make his own sandwich, now it’s a 15 minute task. If we are making this a grilled cheese, all of a sudden what might have been a 10 minute task is probably 25 minutes. And all of it takes constant supervision.”

Cravalho said he knows other families with high school or middle school students who are able to work independently, keeping up with teachers and video conferences, and maintain an almost normal school schedule. But, special education is just “impossible to duplicate,” he said.

Alika Cravalho, a special needs student in Kotzebue, practices life skills and motor skills like writing grocery lists. Because Alika is severely autistic and non-verbal a task like this would normally require physical prompts or hand-over-hand instruction from a teacher. Now that schools have shifted to distance-education, his parents help him through these types of exercises. (Photo courtesy of Liz Cravalho)

This is a critical time for Alika. After this school year, he’ll have just one more before he ages out of the system and can no longer access the support services that his school provides. Anthony and Liz are worried that not only is Alika losing the progress that he’s made, but won’t be able to catch up before graduating next year.

Anthony Cravalho (right) and his son Alika Cravalho (left) share the kitchen table to create a workspace for both of them while Anthony works from home and Alika works on homework. As a special needs student Alika requires constant supervision from his parents. (Photo courtesy of Liz Cravalho)

The Cravalhos don’t fault the school district in any of this. It’s simply a product of poor timing, they said. But they worry about Alika’s options once he leaves school.

For now, the Cravalhos said, the goal is simply to acclimate Alika to the many new devices and technologies that are supposed to connect him to the instruction he needs. For Alika, and many other students with special needs, a disruption in their routine can take weeks to get used to, not days. Alika is getting used it all, little by little, the Cravalhos said, but the education portion will have to be incorporated later on down the road.  

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Alika is not alone. Nearly 15 percent of students in the state have special needs that range from physical disabilities like speech impairments to learning differences like autism, or a combination of multiple disabilities. Each of these students has an education plan created specifically for them through a collaboration between their teachers and families. And federal law ensures the plan is carried out and no changes are made to the program without notifying parents.   

During a typical school term, their IEP is implemented by a team of people ranging from behavioral specialists, to occupational and physical therapists, and teachers. 

But, during a pandemic, when nearly all instruction has moved to distance-learning, much of the work falls to parents. 

Stephanie Cornwell is a single mother in Eagle River. Both of her sons, Brayden, 13, and Parker, 10, are autistic. 

Cornwell says despite being an educator for over 20 years and working as a private special education consultant, having her boys at home has been overwhelming.

“The teachers are really trying, but it feels like a lot of work for me,” Cornwell said. “I’m the one with all the homework.” 

Brayden Cornwell, 13, sits at the kitchen table with his lunch and school work on iPad in Eagle River on April 11, 2020. Stephanie Corwell, Brayden’s mother, said, food seems to make school work better with growing boys. Cornwell said some assignments just won’t work on the iPad but she’s not equipped to navigate and troubleshoot the chrome books the school offered, but she doesn’t want to add more questions to teachers who are already overwhelmed. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cornwell)

She says her day is completely full trying to avoid meltdowns, follow a constant stream of emails, and help them through subjects that she’s not particularly comfortable with like math and science. But in the end, schooling at home is just too different from the school that her sons are used to.

“The just don’t respond to mom,” Cornwell said. “Even though I have a master’s degree and all this background, they don’t respond to me the same way they do with their teachers. It’s just never gonna happen.”

She thinks it’ll be a struggle to get through the rest of the school year, but she said she focuses on the good parts like maintaining communication with her childrens’ teams and sharing resources with other parents in similar situations.

Parker Cornwell, 10, sits at his mother’s, Stephanie Cornwell, sewing/crafting desk in Eagle River to do work that requires the laptop on April 11, 2020. Cornwell said they have to use a variety of devices depending on the assignment. Cornwell said Parker and his brother Brayden, who are both autistic tend to set up for school work at their scheduled time wherever they are comfortable that day. Some days they crowd right next to each other at the kitchen island, but some days they really can’t tolerate being next to each other and they spread out. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cornwell)

“Because what other option is there really? Do we just sit and watch them fail and do nothing?” she said. “For me, that’s not an option. I’ll run myself ragged, supporting my kids and their teams before I let them fail.”

Each of these families emphasized they understand everyone is in a tough situation right now. They say that their respective school districts have worked hard to keep them in the loop, informed, and provide as many resources as possible. 

Education administrator at the Department of Education and Early Development, Donald Enoch, said during this time families still have the right to request mediation or assistance if they have a complaint regarding their student’s IEPs.

DEED has not received any complaints since the the COVID-19 outbreak, Enoch said.

Enoch also said some families, especially in remote areas, are used receiving services from a distance. But for many, in the midst of a crisis, challenges remain.  

Angelina Delaney in Anchorage said she’s worried her 9 year old daughter, Alyviah, will struggle away from the classroom setting. 

“I have no doubt in my mind at this point that she is regressing in certain ways moreso in math because she really, really struggles with that.”

Alyviah Delaney, 9, eats breakfast while working on a homework assignment on April 9, 2020. Her mother, Angelina Delaney, said she worries her daughter is regressing by not being in class due to distance requirements as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Angelina Delaney)

Delaney said her daughter, who is dyslexic and has ADHD, is doing as much as she can. But part of the challenge is that they share a computer and Delaney sometimes has to interrupt her daughter’s instructional time for work. Delaney also has dyslexia which she said makes it more difficult to help teach her daughter as well.

“The school district has people who are educated on how to educate people who need additional help,” she said. “I’m not one of them.”

Delaney is optimistic though. She said it’s easy to get upset at the situation, but that’s not what her child needs right now. 

“Anchorage is a unique place to live and we all seem to just try to make amends and do things the best way we can. We’ve just kind of been holding hands as a community trying to get through it,” she said.

Alyviah Delaney, 9, shows off a science project about living organisms that she’s working on at home in Anchorage on April 9, 2020. Her mother, Angelina Delaney said being at home and away from her friends has been hard for Alyviah who is dyslexic and has ADHD. (Photo courtesy of Angelina Delaney)

Delaney said she’s been in contact with other parents and active in different Facebook groups to try and find support as well as create opportunities for her daughter to talk to and safely play with other children. That’s what Alyviah misses most about school, Delaney said.

“I think that’s the best approach. You have to be strong for your children in these situations, no matter how you feel sometimes” Delaney said.

Like most families, the Cravahlos, Cornwells, and Delaneys are managing their schedule one day at a time.