Risk possible COVID-19 exposure or accept ‘heartbreaking’ limits of remote learning

When Katherine Buitron’s son froze mid-sentence and collapsed on his Chromebook during a virtual class, some of his classmates were scared. Others seemed to think he just fell asleep, she said.



a group of people sitting at a table in front of a laptop: Brothers Connor Dominick 12, left, and Cameron Dominick, 14, share a moment at the family's kitchen in Riverside.


© Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Brothers Connor Dominick 12, left, and Cameron Dominick, 14, share a moment at the family’s kitchen in Riverside.

She moved her son and closed the Chromebook.

After the seizure, he had bad headaches and double vision. Subsequent doctor’s appointments took even more time away from classes. In addition to epilepsy, the fifth grader has autism and dyslexia, and is immunocompromised, Buitron said. His two siblings also are in special education programs, but none is in the first groups of students tapped by Chicago Public Schools to return to in-person learning.



a person standing in front of a tree: Rory Dominick walks with sons Cameron Dominick, 14, who is in a special education program at Riverside-Brookfield High School, and Connor Dominick, 12, in Riverside on Oct. 27, 2020.


© Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Rory Dominick walks with sons Cameron Dominick, 14, who is in a special education program at Riverside-Brookfield High School, and Connor Dominick, 12, in Riverside on Oct. 27, 2020.

The family has already decided they’d continue remote learning anyway, because of health concerns, but would have a hard time making an informed decision based on the sparse plans the district has presented.



a group of people sitting at a table using a laptop: Rory Dominick pours juice for son Connor, 12, as son Cameron, 14, who is in a special education program at Riverside-Brookfield High School, works on his laptop at the family's Riverside home on Oct. 27, 2020. Dominick said she's thrilled her 14-year-old son was finally back in the classroom.


© Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Rory Dominick pours juice for son Connor, 12, as son Cameron, 14, who is in a special education program at Riverside-Brookfield High School, works on his laptop at the family’s Riverside home on Oct. 27, 2020. Dominick said she’s thrilled her 14-year-old son was finally back in the classroom.

“They expect parents to make choices without the full information,” Buitron said.

Even with the limited details, Deidra Kenar, another CPS parent whose children have individualized education programs, would love for them to return to school.

“We feel like the longer and longer they are away,” she said, “the more and more challenges that are coming up for them.”

Although their families don’t yet have the option to send their children back to school before the end of the calendar year, for thousands of other CPS families with special education students, decision day is Wednesday.

Along with prekindergartners, about 5,000 students in moderate and intensive cluster programs have been identified as the first who could resume in-person learning. That includes those who attend specialty schools where most or all students are what CPS classifies as diverse learners.

Based on families’ responses to opt-in forms due Wednesday, district officials will decide whether they can support in-person learning five days a week or use a hybrid model for specialty schools, CPS spokesman James Gherardi said.

Matt Cohen, an education and disability rights attorney in Chicago, said that “at first glance, there is some logic” in prioritizing students who have more severe needs.

“But in reality, there are many kids who are not cluster-based who still are at risk of tremendous regression while they are at home and have great difficulty accessing some of the classes,” Cohen said.

Children outside of cluster programs have also been showing signs of regression both academically and socially, he said.

“Certainly I would support that the kids who are in the cluster classes do have a need for in-person learning as much as possible, but I think limiting it in that way is arbitrary,” Cohen said.

Effie Papoutsis Kritikos, a professor and chairwoman of the special education department in the Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University, said in-person instruction helps students with both comprehension and turning in assignments on time.

“There is a greater need for structure, support and social cues for many students with disabilities,” she said in an email.

With remote instruction, teachers say many special education students are becoming especially drained or overwhelmed by the amount of time online.

“If this is the case, then it would seem that this could be a disruption which could have negative consequences,” Papoutsis Kritikos said.

But, she added, “other consequences due to illness could be more severe.”

‘Our children … are our life’

Those potential consequences weigh heavily on Maria Carrasco.

Carrasco, whose son is in a cluster program at Corkery Elementary in Little Village, said she’s not confident in the school’s cleaning practices. Her son, who has leukemia in addition to Down syndrome, is at higher risk if exposed to the coronavirus, she said.

“I think CPS is seeing our children as numbers, but for us as parents, we see our children as life, they are our life,” Carrasco said through a Spanish interpreter during a news event Tuesday. “I see my child’s safety as priority, and I feel that being at home is safer than being at school.”

Another cluster parent, Anne Igoe, said she hadn’t yet submitted her response but was leaning toward keeping her fourth-grade son home from his cluster program at Kilmer Elementary in Rogers Park. His brother, in second grade, will be home regardless. Even after participating in a town hall with the principal, Igoe has more questions than answers about next quarter’s options.

At least her older son’s individualized schedule has been going well, she said. Most of his classmates have an autism diagnosis, like he does, and they all have modified academics, she said.

“In the spring, it was horrible, I would have said, ‘Get me back to in person right now,’” Igoe said. “The school, the teachers really took a lot of feedback on what did not work in the spring.”

Now she’s concerned about her son’s virtual plan if his teacher also has in-person students.

In order to feel comfortable with her son back in school, Igoe said she needs to see the full plan, how the room will be set up, what happens if a child takes off their mask. She’d also follow the lead of front-line workers.

“There is a way to make it work,” Igoe said. “Our kids do need to be back in class, but I have not received any assurances of how this process will work. … I think there is a way to do this safely.”

‘It’s just so heartbreaking as his mom’

At Northside Learning Center, one of the specialty schools that could end up with a hybrid program, Jeannie Liu’s 16-year-old son is struggling to learn through a screen. He has Down syndrome and a vision impairment, called nystagmus. Though not immunocompromised, when he gets sick, he tends to get very sick, Liu said. A cold is often paired with a respiratory infection.

He recently transferred to Northside in Hollywood Park from a cluster program, in part because the family felt its heavier focus on life skills would better prepare him for adulthood. During his early childhood, Liu advocated for integration with general education peers, but the cluster program was no longer the best fit, and remote learning was not working out, she said. For her son, she feels returning to school would be worth it.

“The cold reality is we live where there’s lots of viruses and germs, and I get everyone is nervous, everyone is scared, but I don’t know if we can ever say, ‘This is as safe as we can get,’” Liu said.

Change for her son is especially difficult, and it helps to have time to adjust, Liu said. Usually she keeps reminding him before a change takes place to help him process it, and she doesn’t want add to his stress by bringing up next quarter before she’s sure he can go back.

“It’s just so heartbreaking as his mom, I can’t provide anything comforting other than, ‘I know how you feel,’” Liu said. “I can’t say when it will be normal again.”

She felt the district should have stuck with its hybrid plan this fall, and that CPS took the choice away from parents. Engagement with families has been lacking, she said.

“You get a Google survey in your inbox … and you don’t hear what happens to it,” Liu said. “You get the survey and then a decision gets made.”

‘The science tells me not to send them back’

Families like the Kenars and Buitrons, whose children have unique needs but share classes with general education students, don’t get the same choices.

Kenar and her husband have adjusted their schedules so one can always help with remote learning, but between three high-needs children, it can be a lot of work, and her husband gets only four hours of sleep some nights.

“He walks in at 6:30, I walk out at 6:30. … ‘Tag, it’s your turn,’” Kenar said.

Their third grader, who is autistic, usually has a full-time aide in school. One first-grade twin is also on the autism spectrum, and the other has a fluency disorder, she said.

All three boys are academically at or above their grade levels, Kenar said, but remote learning has surfaced new or reemerging behaviors and challenges, such as “stimming,” repetitive behavior common among children with autism. It turned out headphones were a trigger for one son who has sensory issues.

Her twins finally started receiving speech services again a couple of weeks ago, after stopping abruptly in March. While happy to see the opportunity for cluster programs, she said parents all around haven’t received enough communication about the actual plans.

Kenar’s oldest has been counting down the days until 2021 and asking if they can go back to school then. When she tried to explain the situation, he said, “Well, why? It’s a new year.” In his mind, the world is black and white, and the pandemic is something that happened in 2020, she said.

“If we were given the option, personally, we would have them go to school,” she said.

Buitron said her son’s neurologist told them prolonged screen time can be problematic for a child who gets seizures.

“Since remote learning started, it has been one of the things my husband and I were afraid of,” Buitron said.

While the other two siblings are more independent, her younger son requires her attention throughout the day, leading her to quit her corporate job while her husband continues working. She said her kids’ special education plans have not been followed, with speech and occupational therapy falling by the wayside and the school failing to provide paper versions of assignments.

Despite the difficulties, even if she had the option, Buitron would not want her children returning to classrooms right now: “The science tells me not to send them back.”

Son’s social life ‘begins and ends at school’

Some suburban school districts have already invited students back, though rising COVID-19 cases have since caused many of those doors to close again.

After months of muddling through remote learning, Riverside resident Rory Dominick was thrilled her 14-year-old son was finally back in the classroom at Riverside-Brookfield High School this month.

But Dominick, whose son Cameron receives special education services, said slipping behind in academic progress because of a less than stellar experience with remote learning was not her primary concern.

“As a child with special needs, my son does not have a gaggle of friends he can meet at the neighborhood baseball field. … His social life begins and ends at school,” Dominick said. “The academics we can figure out, and he is very bright, but he needed to be back at school for social activities like Best Buddies and Special Olympics, where he can hang out with someone besides adults.”

Cameron’s phased-in return began with doing his remote learning assignments at the high school, and getting assistance from a speech pathologist and social worker. This week he began attending classes as part of the high school’s hybrid program.

While her son has several medical conditions, Dominick said she is not worried about him being back in the classroom.

“I’ve lived in fear for the last 14 years with him, so we’re all being very careful to not invite COVID into our house, but dealing with his social emotional health is far more important right now,” she said.

Special education teacher Kerry Doctor was excited to welcome her students back to her Palatine classroom this week.

But Doctor’s enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that in-person instruction for special education students during the pandemic creates formidable challenges when attempting to ensure the health and safety of students and teachers.

“We have some great safety protocols in place, but we also have a good portion of students who don’t wear masks due to physical limitations and sensory reasons, and other students who are trying their best, but they keep taking their masks off, and some try to take our staffs’ masks off,” said Doctor, a teacher at Kirk School, one of several programs headed by the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization.

“That is the reality of the situation — and it’s not our students’ faults — but we need to try to figure something out, because it can be scary for our staff,” she said.

Enforcing social distancing guidelines, which can be tough for any student to follow, is particularly difficult in a special education classroom, Doctor said.

“We have small class sizes, but a lot of our students have one-on-one aides, who can’t possibly maintain 6 feet of social distancing,” she said.

Still, despite the spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, Doctor said it’s imperative to open school buildings for special education students to receive essential services, including assistance with speech, fine motor skills and support for social emotional health — all of which are nearly impossible to duplicate with remote instruction.

Yet she does worry about the health of her students, some of whom suffer from serious medical conditions.

“I don’t know the answers, and this situation is so sad for everyone,” Doctor said, adding: “I still believe working with these kids is the best job in the world. And all of their parents are super heroes who deserve an extra cape right now.”

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