Myrtle Beach parents: Schools not fulfilling legally-binding special education plans during hybrid learning

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(Source: Courtesy of David Warner) Zakkary Warner, left, and Isaiah Warner, right, pose for a photo before school.

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Teresa Gaddy quit her job to help guide her daughter through her schoolwork after the switch to hybrid learning meant her daughter wasn’t getting the in-person support she needs.

“She needs face-to-face,” Gaddy said. “She needs hands-on. She needs that one-on-one that she’s not getting in school right now.”

Gaddy’s daughter is in the third grade at Palmetto Bays Elementary School in Myrtle Beach. Her learning disability means she has an IEP — an individualized education program — that outlines her special needs and which interventions she will receive. It is a legally-binding document. 

That plan includes providing specialized teachers for reading and math, where Gaddy’s daughter reviews assignments before her regular instructor teaches them. With the district’s current hybrid learning model, Gaddy said her daughter isn’t getting that support.

“Since this went on, she’s backsliding,” Gaddy said. “She isn’t getting this system, or getting the help online through other teachers.”

Gaddy sits by her daughter’s side all day and reads her assignments to her. With a toddler also at home, and what she said is an overwhelming amount of work, she’s tired and ends up giving her daughter the answers to assignments. 

“A parent isn’t going to sit there and watch their daughter fail because the district isn’t doing what they’re supposed to do to help their child,” Gaddy said. 

She said she’s trying to arrange a meeting with the school. 

About 4.6% of students in Horry County Schools have a disability, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. 

The Horry County Schools’ governing board voted earlier this month to continue with its hybrid education model, which includes a combination of face-to-face and online, distance learning. Students receive in-person instruction two days a week in order to limit how many students are in a physical school at a time. Horry County families are also able to choose an all-online model.

Lisa Bourcier, a spokeswoman for Horry County Schools, referred to the district’s webpage on hybrid learning when asked about how the pandemic has affected special education services.

“Specifically designed instruction and related services will continue to be provided for all models of instruction, as specified in students’ IEPs and in consideration of those models/schedules determined necessary for students without disabilities,” information on the district’s website reads. “These non-traditional models and/or schedules of instruction and the impact on student needs shall be considered and included, as appropriate for each student, when an IEP or Section 504 Plan is initially developed or through the IEP amendment process either with or without a meeting or as specified by the South Carolina Department of Education, Office of Special Education Services.”

The website states that special education staff will work with teachers to provide accommodations and modifications based on a student’s individual needs. 

“Some specifically designed instruction and related services present unique challenges in certain models,” the website reads. “Therefore, students receiving these services may need to be considered for additional in-person opportunities when social distancing measures will allow. Additionally, some models may require that students whose IEP services are specified as ‘group’ in an in-person model may need to be provided individually in the distance or virtual models.”

The website states that special education students may need additional, in-person help depending on their needs. Those opportunities may include additional support, additional resources for parents, virtual modeling and family support.

For some students with disabilities, their diagnosis also includes health conditions that could put them at a greater risk of a serious illness if they contract COVID-19.

Additionally, most people with autism also have a co-occuring disorder, which can range from a gastrointestinal disorder to other conditions that impact the immune system. 

The move to hybrid learning, and the uncertainty the virus has brought, has been difficult for a population that relies heavily on routines, according to Chris Sullivan, a Myrtle Beach-based parent school partnership coordinator with the South Carolina Autism Society.

“They are really rigid with how they deal with the world,” Sullivan said. “They like sameness. Many of them struggle with change — change in routines, change in structure, change in people, change in environment — because they rely on those things.”

About one in 90 children in South Carolina have been diagnosed with autism, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate is higher in boys, with one in 55 receiving a diagnosis, compared to one in 286 for girls.

Changing between educational settings, Sullivan said, can be difficult for these students. COVID-19 restrictions may also mean they are unable to participate in their regular therapies and routines. 

An increased emphasis on sanitation measures like washing hands can also stress a population that already is more likely to experience obsessive compulsive disorder.

“We have some kids who are so anxious about COVID-19,” Sullivan said. “They are rubbing and cleaning their hands all day long.”

Many people with autism have sensory sensitivities, which can make wearing a mask uncomfortable. They can also be overwhelmed by strong scents.

“Simply going into WalMart and smelling what’s been sprayed down on shopping carts has been difficult,” Sullivan said. 

She’s seen different reactions to online learning. Some students with autism who love technology have thrived, while others might have trouble learning if it’s not with pencil and paper. 

She encourages parents to ask for help, and not to assume they won’t receive it during COVID-19. Schools and parents should come together as a team to find creative solutions and what’s right for that student.

“Every child is different,” Sullivan said. “It needs to be individualized.”

For David Warner’s oldest son, the switch to hybrid education hasn’t been easy.

“It really affected him in a negative way as far as not having the same routine over and over again,” said Warner, the organizer for the Coalition of Autism Parents Horry County.

Warner’s oldest son has autism, and he has another son with a learning disability. They both attend Carolina Forest Elementary School in Myrtle Beach.

Warner filed a federal lawsuit against Horry County Schools in March arguing that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, his son’s therapist should be able to accompany him to school. 

He said the school has not met the required hours outlined in his eldest son’s IEP for speech therapy during the transition to hybrid learning.

“The IEPs are not being fulfilled,” Warner said. 

Many children on the autism spectrum have dietary issues, and many won’t eat certain foods. Right now, Warner said, his family isn’t able to bring in food to school for his son with autism, which means that he’s not allowed to eat anything at school some days. 

Having to oversee education at home, Warner said, has been difficult.

“As much as we like to be grateful for the things we’ve learned along the way, we are not special educators,” he said. 

He’d like to see children with special needs — who are already typically behind their peers — return to a five-day, face-to-face schedule. He also said that he feels that aids and paraprofessionals aren’t fully being utilized.

“I think it is a very difficult situation the school is being placed in,” Warner said. “I hate that they’re in the position they’re in, but I think that we have to be specific about how we meet their needs.”

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