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Special needs students could face extra challenges with COVID-19 restrictions

Posted at 10:15 PM, Jul 17, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — We know things will look different for Utah students at school this fall, but there's a group of students who behavioral health experts say could experience setbacks because of COVID-19 restrictions.

As school districts roll out guidelines for how to continue education during the "new normal," while keeping students safe and healthy, they have to consider how that will look for students with special needs.

"That's a challenge right now that the schools will have to step up to and figure out," said Jeff Skibitsky, president of Alternative Behavior Strategies (ABS).

He indicated that parents have been reaching out to ABS, wondering how the new schedules, rules and potential distance learning curriculum will work for their child.

"The stress for the parents has got to be extremely high," he said.

Skibitsky explained that special needs students typically need consistency and one-one-one, hands-on learning.

Changing the schedule or limiting interaction with instructors — as we're seeing during COVID-19 — can be detrimental to students with disabilities, he indicated.

"The more that we create disruption, the more that we're going to cause some clinical setbacks and change their path for development," he said.

Some school districts, including the Salt Lake City and Jordan School Districts, have not yet ironed out what the fall classroom will look like for special needs students.

The Canyons School District, according to their plan released this week, will open their special needs school Jordan Valley School.

A plan on the Jordan Valley website lays out a number of safety and health regulations.

Even for schools that open up, coming to class with COVID-19 precautions can still pose challenges, Skibitsky expressed. He said that some students might not have learned to tolerate wearing a mask.

"You're going to be dealing with more behavioral challenges, more teaching the desensitization to just having it on," he said.

He also said the chance for the child to get the repetitious treatment they need might be minimized with social distancing and not having as much support in the classroom.

That's why Skibitsky stressed the importance of parents working with their child's school and other outside resources to create a plan, so that the student gets the learning opportunity and attention they need, in a safe way.

Skibitsky recommended parents reach out to the Utah Parent Center, which he is the chair of. He said the Utah Parent Center has parent advocates who can talk through options.

He also suggested contacting behavior health organizations, because he said they will understand what's occurring and help parents navigate the situation.

Parents might also be able to go through their health insurance for help utilizing some of the resources.

That way, as the school year moves forward, special needs students won't get left behind.

"It's not something that's a hurdle that we can't get past," he said. "But it's being aware of and really knowing those resources, to be able to get there."