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Families across Maine are facing a brand new challenge right now, with thousands of children being educated at home. And it’s especially challenging for families of children with disabilities.
Schools and agencies say they have been quick to adapt and are using video and phone interconnects with students. But the new format is leaving some families exhausted — and worried that their kids might be falling behind on a number of fronts.
On a recent weekday, Amanda Hutter raced around her living room to keep up with her 4-year-old son, Isaac, inside their Scarborough home.
“All right, you’re gonna keep your feet on the floor. Then you’re gonna give me a high-five,” she said.
Isaac has come a long way, Hutter said. When he was about a year old, he was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD. He also has behavioral issues and some speech delays. But over the past few years, Isaac has been receiving services from clinicians and providers at a specialized preschool in Waterboro. And Hutter said that’s made a big difference.
“We were able to do things such as grocery shopping as a family. We were able to have what others would consider normal moments with your family,” Hutter said. “He was doing better at school, he was learning better, he was happier. He was making friends.”
But a few weeks ago, Isaac’s preschool closed. Hutter left her job to stay home and care for him. Isaac’s teachers are still working with him remotely. But Hutter said without the hours of support at school each week, her son is struggling to maintain his progress.
“He still had meltdowns and stuff like that, but they’d be 20 minutes. Now, without the support and since the pandemic, his meltdowns are four hours or more,” she said. “And it’s hard to go from having this village and having 50 hours plus a week of the village helping to raise your child, to you. And you alone.”
“It’s really, really confusing and it’s really overwhelming for parents,” Maine Parent Federation Executive Director Carrie Woodcock said.
Woodcock said families across Maine are struggling to adjust to the new normal of homeschooling, and that the transition is particularly hard for students with disabilities who no longer have in-person contact with trained staff and specialists.
“We’re telling our parents, ‘You’re not a teacher. You don’t have the degrees that the teachers at the school have. So you can’t expect that you’re going to be able to provide the education that your child is getting at school and do the best you can. Try not to get overwhelmed. Take it one day at a time,’” Woodcock said.
Parents aren’t completely alone, as some services are continuing online. On a mat outside of Hutter’s house in Scarborough, a therapist talked to Isaac through a tablet placed on the ground, while another, Jason Golowski, with BDA North, a behavioral consulting group that operates a center in Waterboro, said clinicians are using this technology as a way to coach parents on dealing with behaviors.
“And we’ll walk you through that,” Golowski said. “So if you’re working with the child, we can give you the tips and strategies that we would typically do — you know, kinda like the little nuances that we might not even realize we do, but when you see somebody do something different, we can provide those tips and strategies.”
The Maine Department of Education has said many schools are taking a similar approach and using online communication tools to keep providing services and even bringing classes of students together.
Hutter said the online guidance for her son isn’t the same as the services he received before. But she believes it’s making a difference for Isaac.
“And I am so grateful to the clinical associate that we have, who loves my son unconditionally, where she has given us the ability to be able to learn skills, not jump in and do it for us,” she said, “and just let us do whatever works.”
But beyond the efforts by schools and agencies, questions remain about what the future will hold for the support systems for children like Isaac. Michelle Hathaway, the director of the Auburn-based Margaret Murphy Centers for Children, said she wonders whether some social service agencies will be able to stay afloat through the pandemic.
“And that’s also a huge challenge for providers like us across the state right now,” Hathaway said. “We’re fee-for-service providers. And if our students can’t come to us, we aren’t reimbursed. And so the little bit we’re able to do is just a tiny percentage of that revenue before. And it ultimately will impact many providers across the state.”
For many families, the uncertainty lies in how their children will be able to make up for the months of interrupted developmental progress.
Some schools have already signaled that they’re planning to offer extra support when buildings do eventually open again, potentially in the summer.
Superintendent Bill Braun of AOS 90, near Baileyville, said he’s hoping to use money from the federal relief bill signed last month.
“And at least giving the students a chance to catch up and make up and get their things together. And if it continues into next year we’ll use those dollars to try to support students beyond the school day,” he said
But in the meantime, schools in Maine have been recommended to move to online learning until the end of the academic year. And that means at least a few more months of learning from home.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.