By Hannah Grieco and Emily Popek

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos put Fairfax County in the spotlight this month with her criticism of its hybrid and distance learning plans. But many school systems have decided that it’s not safe for full time, in-person school until we know more about children and COVID-19.

With cases rising, distance learning options are being implemented, with some counties already announcing virtual starts. Even in-person instruction is focused on hybrid models in most areas — days in and out of school, with synchronous and asynchronous instruction online.

In Virginia, 13.5% of students have documented disabilities and will do at least some virtual learning. For them and their families, learning platforms and strategies need to be sensible and accessible. Parents need to be able to trust school systems will make that happen.

“How will intervention for my ninth grader’s executive function deficits, which are compounded by his dyslexia and ADHD, be effectively delivered virtually?” asks Symone Walker, a parent of two teens in Arlington.

In Fairfax, the transition to remote learning this past spring was plagued by privacy breaches, virtual harassment and technological failures, as well as legal and anecdotal complaints that schools failed to adequately serve students with disabilities. Similar issues arose throughout the state and country.

For Diane Cooper Gould, a Fairfax parent, distance learning erased the accommodations that made it possible for her child to learn this past spring. “The executive functioning piece was a nightmare for my 15-year-old with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Gould says. “He was thrown off by the constantly changing parameters and requirements.”

Johnny Stone, a Henrico County parent, thought schools did a great job with the technology component of distance learning. But his son, Isaac, is on the autism spectrum and, while highly motivated, found the work repetitive.

Isaac will be heading to Mills E. Godwin High School this fall, and is concerned about online classes because of the sensory overload of many kids talking at once on the virtual platform. He’s worried about being able to focus on his actual work.

Students struggled to organize and complete work in the spring, or even find assignments within complicated, crowded online platforms. Students with visual and hearing needs often lacked access to the content.

As we approach the fall, parents want to know that disabled students are carefully being considered. Where before teachers might automatically turn a worksheet into a PDF, or grab a video off YouTube, these practices now must be examined for accessibility issues. For example, visually impaired students often find that their screen reading programs won’t be able to interpret PDF files. And for a student who is deaf, hard of hearing or has an auditory processing disorder, a video that lacks closed captioning (or only has auto-generated “captions”) would be useless.

Additionally, what will school systems do if students, or their caregivers, can’t access the school’s website? Well before COVID-19, thousands of school districts already had violated federal requirements to make their websites accessible to all.

The work of accessibility and accommodation never was meant to end at the classroom door. For too long, it has been tailored to individual cases rather than made a foundational principle of Virginia’s schools.

Now is the time for schools to stop viewing accommodations and accessibility as an afterthought and begin to take advantage of a digital learning possibility: equity in education.

During remote learning, equity starts with 1-on-1, synchronous support for students and families, and simple, straightforward presentations. Now is not the time for clip art or wacky fonts, or cute YouTube videos without captions. Student engagement cannot come at the cost of accessibility.

Now more than ever, equity also means providing clear contact information at the point of delivery about how a student or caregiver can get additional support. It means more scaffolding: organizational tools such as graphic organizers and clear, concise checklists to help students complete their work.

As students start the 2020-21 academic year, we’re entering into a new normal — one with more digital learning than ever before. Schools must take steps now to ensure this new normal includes — at last — accessibility for all.

Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate, and a former Arlington County public school teacher. Contact her at: hgriecowrites@gmail.com

Emily Popek is a communications specialist for K-12 schools in New York state, specializing in digital accessibility. Contact her at: emily.farmer@gmail.com

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