WRAL Investigates

Online learning presents extra challenges for special needs students

Posted August 25, 2020 1:29 p.m. EDT
Updated August 25, 2020 7:32 p.m. EDT

— Online learning has presented challenges for students, teachers and parents. Those challenges increase exponentially for children with special needs.

"Levi is on the autism spectrum, and his verbal ability is probably about that of a 3- or 4-year-old," said Derek Breshears about his son.

The happy, curious, active, 9-year-old boy is dealing with the challenges of a pandemic-driven online world.

"Every day that he’s not in school, he falls further and further behind his typical peers and already he’s starting at a deficit," described Levi’s mother, Stacey Breshears.

Despite the challenges, the Breshears felt fortunate. They hired a speech therapist and sacrificed to put Levi in the private Hope Creek Academy in Durham, which offers limited in-person learning. But, there’s still a gap.

"Being on the spectrum, he doesn’t understand social cues all the time and how to behave. So, seeing his peers. He’s learning from them and he’s seeing ‘Oh, this is how I act in this situation.’ He’s learning rules. He’s learning how to sit at a desk in school. Those are really hard to do when you’re doing Zoom calls," explained his mother.

The Breshears said Levi often loses focus with online class because he can’t see his fellow students to model their behavior. For many children on the autism spectrum, simply understanding the virus and the fallout is difficult.

"He says his classmates’ names, he says his school name, he says his teachers’ names. I think that’s his way of saying, ‘We’re not together’ and trying to understand why we’re not together," said Stacey Breshears.

A non-profit called Voices Together is helping the Breshears through these tough times. The group created videos which use music to unleash hidden potential.

"You miss months and months of instruction and interventions and therapies, and it’s really difficult because they start sliding back," said Yasmine White, founder and CEO of Voices Together.

With their in-person program on hold, White said these are unsettling times for children like Levi.

"Children with special needs are hurt the most,” she said.

Derek Breshears said the program has had a big impact.

"It helped him verbally, and it helped him socially. (In) both of those things we saw big gains,” he said.

Derek Breshears, who’s a music teacher, also learned his son has perfect pitch. The true music to the Breshears’ ears would be learning that the virus is under control and schools can reopen.

“So we don’t know when this pandemic is going to end or what’s going to happen, and for kids like Levi, every day is a day they fall behind,” said Derek Breshears.

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