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Students With Learning Disabilities Face Unique Challenges With Remote Learning

Helen Pettiford
Joseph and his daughter Lyla planning the family garden.

In the Pettiford family, everyone goes to school every day. Or at least they used to. The parents, Helen and Joseph, are both teachers. And their five-year-old daughter Lyla, is in preschool.

They normally wake up around 5:45 a.m. when Lyla arrives at her parents' bedroom door. Then, it’s onto breakfast, and other duties, before both of the parents leave by seven. That’s when a home-care aide arrives to stay with Lyla until dropping her off at the bus at 8:30 a.m.

But now, school comes to them.

Credit Helen Pettiford
The Pettiford family is learning to adjust to a new schedule, as schools are closed through at least May 15.

Helen and Joseph teleconference in for meetings, post videos, and keep up with students online. Lyla’s teachers send videos and lesson plans, and her parents take turns throughout the day helping with her school. 

Lyla’s teachers send video with songs, like one from her teacher Andy Conolon where she sings, "The Wheels on the Bus," and encourages students to sing along.

Before going back to school virtually last week, her parents say Lyla was taking the abrupt change pretty hard. She’d bring them her backpack, or pictures of her friends, and ask them to take her to school. 

"If we say we're not going to get in the car, or you know, that we're just not going to go to school, she'll get pretty upset and she'll cry and she'll scream," Helen said. "It's usually short lived."

Lyla goes to the Frankie Lemmon School in Raleigh. The school opened in 1965 for students with special needs, and now educates students with and without disabilities.

For Lyla, it seems to help now that she’s seeing her classmates and teachers regularly again.

"We've seen her just kind of settle in and, you know, see her feel centered a little bit and being able to identify as a student," Helen said. "Even if it’s just through a computer."

Lyla, like a number of students at her school, deals with being developmentally delayed. Working with speech and occupational therapists helps her learn the skills she needs. 

Credit Helen Pettiford
Lyla is in preschool at the Frankie Lemmon School in Raleigh, where she's been attending since she was three.

The Pettifords have a new routine that mirrors the one Lyla is used to at school. They take a walk at 10am, and have regular snack times.

Rebecca Smith is the director of the Frankie Lemmon School, and has heard concerns from parents who fear their children may lose some of the progress they’ve made. She says this is an important time for young students.  

"I think it’s never too late, but the way the brain develops is certainly better the earlier that a child receives special education, they'll benefit more from it, the earlier they receive it," she said. "So these guys are definitely in a critical window in that way."

The school closing its physical space came at a bad time in another way for the Pettiford. After eleven months on a wait list, Lyla was scheduled for cognitive and Autism spectrum testing. But now that’s been postponed. 

They remain optimistic. For now, they have the lesson plans and help from her teachers and therapists, but they have to work all that in while teaching classes of their own. So far, not many of their meetings have overlapped.

"Hopefully we'll continue to get times where, if I need to run upstairs to our makeshift office, then we can do that," Helen said. "She won't interrupt because she'll at least have you know one of us there next to her."

One of the normal rhythms Helen and Lyla look forward to is taking a trip each afternoon. Before, they would go to a gym where Lyla can play, or on an errand like getting groceries. Those aren’t possible anymore, so instead, they’ve started a family garden, and go on lots of walks and tricycle rides. 

Cole del Charco is WUNC’s morning reporter. He’s worked for WUNC since 2019.
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