Disruptions from virus outbreak challenge special-needs learning
Lansing — Chris Hagler functions at the kindergarten level, is non-verbal and wheelchair bound.
He used to spend his days learning from a special education teacher, interacting with peers and working with speech, physical and occupational therapists.
The 8-year-old’s moods worsened and his distractions grew after Gardner International Magnet School closed in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to his father, Brian Hagler. Chris eventually calmed after a few weeks, but Hagler understood why his son reacted the way he did.
“A lot of kids with disabilities find comfort in routine,” Hagler told the Lansing State Journal. “When that routine gets broken, their anxiety goes up, and they tend to behave differently. We have had to keep up his routine, but it’s hard to do when you’re working full-time.”
The pandemic disrupted the lives of all children, but it has caused additional stress for those with disabilities. And parents and child experts alike are not only worried about their emotional state, but also how the lack of in-person instruction will affect children with special needs in the long run.
“Children with higher needs will need more consistent care,” said Brooke Ingersoll, a psychologist at Michigan State University. “Major breaks in services could lead to a loss in the skills they acquired. Without daily therapies, there could be some backsliding.”
Chris was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy. Chris was adopted by Hagler and his wife, Jennifer, when he was 21 months old.
“He needs full-time care,” Hagler said. “Repetition is everything to him. If he doesn’t go back to school until August, he’ll have lost six months. It’s going to be really tough.”
The support Chris previously received from teachers and therapists has now fallen on his parents, who said they have largely been taking care of Chris’ needs at home without much guidance from the Lansing Public School District.
“My wife and I are not professionals,” Hagler said. “We didn’t go to school for years to do this. Fortunately, I went to enough of his physical therapy sessions and have a general idea of what goes on. Same with occupational therapy — I have a general idea.”
Hagler understands why the school year was cut short. He doesn’t blame anyone. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.
The Ingham ISD and the Lansing Public School District are working to adhere to the federal law and a state-mandated order that requires equitable access to education for all students, including those receiving special education and those without internet access and devices.
“Any special education staff who sees students, such as physical therapists and psychologists, will be in contact with students they already work with to offer lessons,” said Sam Sinicropi, Lansing’s interim superintendent. “The plan is there, and we’re now informing parents of what that plan is.”
Hagler, who is currently working from home, will need to assist his son during any online learning.
Chris suffers from a vision impairment and can’t use technology alone. Hagler usually has to enlarge items by connecting his computer to his 50-inch television screen.
“As far as the remote learning plan, it will probably meet the needs of children, provided they have one involved parent who can take the time to work with their child,” Hagler said. “I have the feeling English as second language kids, kids with single parents who work, some special ed children and others – where the remote learning plan will not work.”
What has helped the Hagler family is the Zoom calls they have every two weeks with their son’s case manager at the Community Mental Health Authority of Clinton, Eaton, Ingham Counties.
The pandemic has led to an influx of telehealth offerings and in-person parent-delivered therapy, according to MSU’s Ingersoll.
“Parents are video-conferencing with a therapist coaching them (to help their child),” Ingersoll said. “We work remotely with parents, coach them and help them with strategies. Having a therapist watch and provide feedback is helpful.”
Though it has been a challenging time raising a child with special needs, Hagler wouldn’t change it for anything.
“Chris has a smile that can light up the world,” Hagler said. “It can be challenging and tiring, but the love you receive from that child and the fun you can have with that child despite their disabilities is worth it. It’s rewarding.”