CLEVELAND — Enrollment numbers from the State Department of Education show thousands of students who need specialized education did not enroll this school year.
In the last year, there was a 2.48% drop in enrollment for students with disabilities or students on an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Shelly Molich, a mom of two, understands the choices parents who have students with disabilities had to make this year.
"It's been tough," she said.
Molich has two daughters.
Her oldest daughter Kaylee, 4, is on an IEP. She is in the Brunswick School District.
"(Kaylee) was diagnosed with Autism when she was two. She's nonverbal and she is the light of my life," Molich said. Her youngest daughter, Remi, is 2.
Molich, her two daughters, and her husband have been navigating the pandemic together.
One of the hardest things for them as a family is to explain some of the fallout to their daughters.
"We try -- we do our best talking to her as an adult and sometimes she gets it, I feel," Molich said. "But then sometimes ... it's not like she understands, you know."
In the spring, Kaylee was in remote learning like other students across the country, but it didn't go well.
"The teachers would try to talk to me about getting her to like do things like over the phone, like jump on your trampoline or try to see if she'll step up on the couch or see if she'll draw this picture or see if she'll play with Play-Doh," Molich said. "And she just wasn't having it because it's not -- she's at home."
The delineation between being at home and being at school wasn't clear for Kaylee. As soon as Molich was able to get her daughter back to in-person learning, she took the chance.
"I'm her mother and I do the best I can. I love her as much as possible, but she also needs that teacher. She's a teacher who specializes in special needs to help her more than what her father and I could do for her," she said.
When both girls are home, it can make focusing on school difficult.
"Like when Remi wants me to read her a book, it's like but Kaylee wants me to help her build blocks. And it's like, I can't be two places at once, you know what I mean?"
The consistency of face-to-face learning has helped, Molich said. When Kaylee isn't in a structure, like class, she regresses.
If face-to-face learning had not been an option for them, Molich was making contingency plans.
"I probably would of tried to hire a private tutor or a teacher who does home visits, honestly, because there's no way that she would have been able to go a whole year without any."
One teacher who is adjusting with the students with disabilities she teachers is Edie Steiner.
Steiner is a music therapist in the Akron Public School system.
"I'm trying very trying really hard to stay in my positive mindset," she said about the changes that happened during the pandemic.
She leads a Friday morning music therapy class for a handful of non-verbal students and, now, their parents or guardians.
"They don't have the privilege of going home and telling their parents about their school day," she said about a normal class day. "And it's just been very rewarding to see their parents singing along and clapping along and dancing with them."
For Steiner, the year of pandemic learning taught her how to stretch and collaborate.
She partners with the Summit County Historical Society for her music therapy, and she hosts a short history show that talks about the county and the state.
"I think it's been one -- a year that has taught me a lot about myself and a lot about my students," she said. "When we are smiling through the screen and like really cheering the kids on during music therapy, I can see them change. I can see them become excitement. I can see their bodies start to capture the movement and the music and the beat."