Pandemic Creates New Challenges for Children Learning with IEPs

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Nolen Parkin is a happy 11-year-old kid. He loves his brothers, bike rides and school.

“He loves [school]. He can’t wait to go. As soon as I say the bus is coming, he is up and headed for the door,” said Kelly Parkin, Nolen’s mother.

Parkin says the entire family relies on the help Nolen gets from the teachers and therapists at school.  “We need them. He needs them to make him the best version of himself that he can be,” said Parkin.

That’s why the shutdown of schools last spring was incredibly frustrating for them. “Just seeing the loss of everything that he had. He sat at home and we watched educational shows as best as we could. We worked with him as best as we know how, but we’re not skilled in adaptive education,” said Parkin. “He doesn’t like to sit and look at a screen. His brain does not tolerate that. He wasn’t like his brothers who could do a Zoom class.”

After these challenges, the Parkins worried all summer about what the fall would bring. “Is he going to be given a chance to go back to school and fulfill what’s listed in his IEP with all the adaptations and accommodations, and are we going to make good on that?” said Parkin.

An IEP is an individualized education program. Kids get an IEP when they have developmental delays. IEPs outline very specifically what kids need — and what they will get — to support their education. For Nolen, that means full-time, in-person learning.

“And so far — I don’t want to jinx it — but so far, so good! He’s happy. He’s so much happier,” said Parkin.

Parents in Waukee were able to choose in-person or online learning for their kids. Des Moines parents like Joy Barlean did not get that choice.

“The gap just gets wider between what they can do and what their peers can do,” said Barlean. She said last spring’s shutdown was a mess. “It was awful. The boys were in tears asking to go to school and I was frustrated.”

Barlean started documenting the many ways in which online learning didn’t work for Luke and Logan. “What I found is data is really important on both sides. The school uses it and you can use that same data as well,” Barlean said.

She used it to demand that her boys get what is in their IEPs.

“It’s OK for parents to hold the school accountable for what they are supposed to be doing and know what they are supposed to be doing and say, ‘Nope, I need you to do your job. I can’t do my job and your job,’” said Barlean.

Luke and Logan were able to get in-person learning when school started. That made a huge difference and it is something she wishes more parents knew they could do.

“What I see from other parents is they are trying to do it all and they are burning out. They are stressed out,” said Barlean. “This is why they are on IEPs. They need more support than a typical kid.”

It’s something these parents fight for every day and now have to deal with new obstacles and risks along the way.

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