Thinking outside the classroom: Akron family creates 'pop-up classroom' for daughter with disability

pop-up classroom
Posted at 4:45 PM, Sep 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-25 18:46:51-04

AKRON, Ohio — Remote learning can be challenging for many students, but for families of students with disabilities, those challenges may be even more acute.

Holly Christensen and Max Thomas of Akron said they understood the need for remote learning when the pandemic first hit in March.

“We didn’t know,” Christensen said. “It was scary. The schools made the appropriate steps to go to remote learning.”

Thomas added, “At the time, it seemed important to do it, because we didn’t know what we were facing, the pandemic was accelerating and it was right. I really appreciate that the district took quick action, the state took quick action and it was the right thing.”

Their daughter, Lyra Christensen, has Down syndrome. She turned eight years old in August and is in first grade this fall, since she had an extra year each of preschool and kindergarten to help get her ready for first grade.

Lyra Christensen
PHOTO: Lyra works in her pop-up classroom.

“She had been doing so well just before everything shut down,” Christensen said, adding that Lyra was on track to be ready for first grade this fall. “Then we watched that all sort of regress as all of the services, all of the interaction with her faculty and her classmates stopped.”

So when it became clear that remote learning would continue for the rest of the spring semester at Akron Public Schools, where Lyra went to school, “that’s when it really started to hit us how hard that was going to be for Lyra and for other students like her,” Thomas said. “Because her learning depends on in-person instruction, it depends on being one-on-one with her aide, it depends on being one-on-one with her intervention specialist, it depends on being in the regular classroom with those students.”

The parents are adamant that remote learning is “not a workable solution” for students with intellectual disabilities, noting that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law, if there are in-person requirements for students with disabilities under their IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), those must still be provided, no matter what.

“For us to put her in front of a Chromebook and say, ‘OK, now here’s a lesson,’ it didn’t work,” Thomas said.

APS initially planned a blended model, which Christensen said she was happy with. However, the school board switched gears and decided instead to bring students back for fully-remote learning for the first nine weeks of school. Christensen and Thomas knew that wasn’t going to work for their family.

“As working parents, we can’t do it, and as a child with an intellectual disability, she cannot manage self-directed, computer-driven learning,” Christensen said.

They’d heard of other parents creating “pods” in their yards and decided to give it a try, putting up a tent in their backyard and contacting a student teacher with whom Lyra had worked for two years. That teacher recently graduated from college and agreed to come work with Lyra, and ultimately a couple other students, for a couple of hours each day. That teacher sits there with the students, helping them navigate the computer and any paper they are working with, redirecting them back to their work if needed.

“I can’t quit my jobs in order to be the person that does that,” Christensen said, noting that it wouldn’t be reasonable financially.

The outdoor pop-up classroom setup has been good for Lyra. Her mother said she knows all her first grade sight words and is progressing in math, and she credits Lyra’s teacher for that. But, Christensen said, not every family has the ability to do something like this.

“We have a low-income school district. Most urban school districts are low-income school districts, and we have a lot of parents who are essential workers,” Christensen said.

She said it is especially tough on the most vulnerable children, those with disabilities, adding, “It’s just absolutely unacceptable.”

Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio, said that children with disabilities “have a much more difficult time accessing educational programming that’s not in person.” She added that schools are “coming up with one-size-fits-all resolutions to the COVID problem.”

However, Hildebrant said, that doesn’t work for students with disabilities, who have IEPs in place for a reason.

“Kids with disabilities typically get more services than just your traditional instruction by a teacher,” Hildebrant said. “They get supportive services that help them access their education, like therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy. Those cannot under most circumstances be provided in a remote environment, so not only are they missing out on their academic instruction, but they're missing out on all of that support that they need because of their disability.”

Disability Rights Ohio urged parents to go to its website or call the office to learn more about what they can do and what steps they can take to advocate for their child’s individual needs and ask for additional supports in the form of compensatory education or recovery services.

“We don't know how long this is going to last,” Hildebrant said. “And every day that kids with disabilities aren't getting what is on their plan is a day that they are getting further behind.”

Max Thomas, Lyra’s father, agreed, saying he was concerned about regression for his daughter and other students.

“You have a tailored program for that student,” Thomas said. “They’re designed with a certain instructional model in place. And so part of me is sad, and part of me is angry.”

However, he’s also proud of his daughter for rolling with the punches.

“We’re happy to do it, we’re happy to advocate for our daughter. That’s part of what you get when you have a kid with special needs, and a really special kid at that,” Thomas said. “But we shouldn’t have to push this hard to get a change.”

Christensen highlighted the divide between affluent districts and low-income districts and the fact that students with disabilities are even more at risk with lost classroom time. She added that other Summit County school districts have come forward with plans to resume in-person learning, at least on a part-time basis, and said the plan APS is discussing for later this fall is “too late. We have kiddos who […] need to be back in the building in some measure.”

“This is wonderful for my particular child, but not every child in the district has the opportunity to take part in such a situation, which is increasing an educational divide in a district that already sees one, and in a nation where we see way too much of an educational divide,” Christensen said. “I don’t want to foster that educational divide, I want to drive the bus to the solution, and the solution is to get hybrid learning back in the school buildings.”

In a statement, Akron Public Schools said it understands the frustrations parents are feeling, especially those with IEPs who are doing remote learning. The district said it has given access to instruction to every student with an IEP, as well as individualized plans for students who cannot use technological devices, adding, “APS understands these are not perfect solutions, but our focus continues to be on the health and well being of our students. And we are evaluating those concerns every day we continue living with COVID-19.”

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