Tyree Stewart, a frustrated, working-class single mother of four, struggles to balance working as a billing and coding specialist from her suburban townhouse in Maryland and engaging her youngest son, who has autism, in distance learning.
“Children with special needs must be in a classroom setting with their teacher and one-on-one help,” said Stewart, 39.
Her son Christian, an outgoing 7-year-old, is in the second grade. His struggle with distance learning is resulting in outbreaks that concern his mother, who is trying to divide her time between him and other three children ranging from ages 15 to 22.
“Christian is not focused at all,” Stewart said. “He has had several meltdowns since school has started. When I’m at work, his sister has to help him log in while trying to do her own studies.
“Christian’s school ran out of laptops, so we had to use my cellphone for him to do his schoolwork,” Stewart posted. “I feel like I am the teacher, principal, and all of the above. It’s difficult to focus on my work and him at the same time. The whole situation has brought me to tears.”
The family lives in Wicomico County, Maryland, a suburb of D.C., where Stewart said she was beginning to feel frustrated and alone. But then she discovered a community of parents of children with special needs on Facebook.
There, she found parents who are also working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions while desperately searching for resources to aid their children in developing and surviving the school year.
“It all happened so suddenly,” said Ashley Waters, one of the parents. “The biggest issue is that we were not prepared for this life shift and the schools weren’t either.”
Walters, a single mother of three, including a 3-month old, said, “I believe that teachers and administrators are doing the best they can, but we just need more support as parents to help our children.”
Deborah Ingram, a former D.C. Public Schools educator, said teaching children with special needs is not hard when you know how they learn individually.
“You have to meet children where they are,” Ingram said. “Students with autism have a more kinesthetic learning style. They generally like hands-on, art, sculpture, Play-Doh, Legos and playing outside. Parents may be trying to teach their child in the learning style that they know, while as teachers, we know a variety of learning styles and can cater to the students’ needs.
“You have to understand that children with autism are calmed by touch,” said Ingram, who now runs an online tutoring service to supplement home learning.
Debbie Scheraga Wischmann, a teacher at her alma mater Kennedy High School in Montgomery County for over 14 years, concurred. She said that due to her successful track record of working with children with special needs, her roster grows every year and she loves working with them.
“Some of my students with special needs I have had for several years off and on, so I know them well,” said Wischmann, who also has general education students in her classes.
“I have cases where virtual learning is better suited for my students because traditionally, they would miss school often due to medical issues,” she said. “My co-teacher and I do breakout sessions in small groups and then come back as a whole and discuss. We play games and I’m able to do one-on-one with my students with special needs.
“They honestly are doing very well given the circumstances,” Wischmann said of her students. “I’d love to be able to continue virtual teaching my kids to make sure that we remain as healthy as possible.”
After six months of remote learning, Stewart said Christian and her other school-age children have learned to adapt.
“Christian likes to go for long walks throughout the day,” Stewart said. “We take several breaks before he gets to his tipping point, which is encouraged by his teacher. I am very proud of his ability to learn during this difficult time. His teachers have been very supportive and understanding, so I’m grateful for that.
“We are doing good now that we’ve just wrapped up seven weeks of six days of work,” she said. “I’m tired but good.”