Virtual schooling has presented some challenges for Kimia Mohandessi,15. She found working in a small pod of friends at her home in Vancouver, Wash., helped her stay on task better and complete her work.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Families of students with disabilities face new challenges in the era of distance learning

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
March 16, 2021 1:52 p.m.

Parents across the Portland area face tough decisions about whether to keep their kids home or send them back to classrooms.

This past year has brought massive change for Oregon and Washington students. For students with both intellectual and developmental disabilities, learning at home brings added difficulties for families, as they’re forced to recreate school environments at home, with unfamiliar tools and without receiving services they’re accustomed to.


And as schools are ramping up in-person instruction for students, families are concerned that some children have fallen behind and may not get the support to catch back up.

OPB stayed in touch with a few families through the difficulties of the last year to learn more about their recent school experience and the decisions they’ll make going forward.

‘It feels like it never stops’

When COVID-19 first shut schools down in the spring, Maria Rangel’s daughter, Ruby, tried to go back to school.

“My daughter was having a hard time waking up, wanting to go to school, wanting to go on the bus,” Rangel said in fall 2020.

“More than 10 times she was out the door trying to be at the bus stop, waiting for her bus, and I was like ‘Ruby, there’s no school!’”

Maria Rangel and her daughter Ruby used to walk around this park before virtual school. Here, Rangel walks with all three of her kids, including Giovanni, left, and Emiliano, second from left, and Ruby, right.

Maria Rangel and her daughter Ruby used to walk around this park before virtual school. Here, Rangel walks with all three of her kids, including Giovanni, left, and Emiliano, second from left, and Ruby, right.

Elizabeth Miller

Ruby missed school and her routine. The ninth-grader is living with Down syndrome.

After a couple of months at home last spring, Rangel figured out a distance learning plan — a new routine that allowed Ruby to work on her reading and writing while learning new skills, including things around the house, like how to make a smoothie.

But Rangel said she wasn’t able to devote the same time to her other children, Giovanni and Emiliano.

“I honestly felt like she required a lot of my support that I had to let go of supporting my boys the way they needed to be supported to be successful,” Rangel said.

Now, Ruby is in her freshman year of high school in the Reynolds School District. Giovanni is in eighth grade and Rangel’s youngest, Emiliano, is in second grade.

When the year started, Rangel had a conversation with her kids about helping each other, to help them understand that they would approach the challenge of distance learning as a family.

“Trying to get them in the mindset — don’t just look for me for responses and answers,” Rangel said. “You guys have each other, and you guys are going to have each other for life, so let’s do this together.”

Rangel works as a bilingual outreach coordinator for the Northwest Down Syndrome Association and as the year wore on, Rangel said between work and school, everyone in her household felt tired and burned out.

“It feels like it never stops,” she said.

Rangel has help from neighbors and Ruby’s personal care provider. She said Ruby is making progress and building on her skills at home, but even with outside help, it takes a lot of support from Rangel herself.

Maria Rangel and her children, Giovanni, Emiliano, and Ruby, pictured in November 2020.

Maria Rangel and her children, Giovanni, Emiliano, and Ruby, pictured in November 2020.

Elizabeth Miller

“I have to drop everything that I have to do to be next to her when she’s on distance learning, helping her step by step,” Rangel said.

“I see my older son falling through the cracks, not doing his assignments, and then ... my little one still needs a lot of support too, to stay on task.”

Rangel said she feels guilty, and it’s difficult to take time away from supporting Ruby when that’s what she’s used to receiving in school.

“It’s been a year plus times in distance learning and I’m still trying to figure out how to support all three of my children.”

When she’s not caring for her children, Rangel is helping other families access resources and information about COVID-19. She’s helped NWDSA develop comics, videos and other information in Spanish to inform and combat disinformation around the pandemic.

“That’s one of my biggest passions I have for the work I do, is to break barriers of access to families,” Rangel said.

“That’s what I’ve enjoyed most about this year, that as an organization, we were able to ... listen to our community, and from their voices and their needs, develop several different things that can help them better understand what we’re going through.”

The past year’s educational journey has affected families differently. Even within one family, students may have a range of experiences.

For individual students, different experiences in learning

Jessie Mohandessi has three kids at two different schools in Vancouver. Imaan, her oldest, attends Seton Catholic College Prep, while her two younger kids, Kimia and Mina, go to Vancouver iTech Preparatory, a magnet school run by Vancouver Public Schools.

All three students have dyslexia.

Reflecting on the beginning of the pandemic, Mohandessi saw her kids lose interest in school as they lost the in-person connection with teachers and peers.

“I noticed that all three of my kids just basically disengaged from the learning that they were doing and weren’t really as motivated or happy,” Mohandessi said in September.

“The happiness is a big thing — they went from being pretty happy to go to school ... but they weren’t getting anything out of it socially and emotionally and they ended up just shutting down a lot.”

As a stay-at-home parent, Mohandessi was around to help her kids if they needed it. But she says it was difficult learning how to access the various digital platforms while trying to learn the academic content at the same time.

“For kids with dyslexia and ADHD and a lot of other comorbidity disorders, management is almost a full-time job in itself,” Mohandessi said in December 2020. “And now that we’re working online, the management is harder.”

Imaan Mohandessi, 18, completes schoolwork at his home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021. Imaan attends Seton Catholic College Preparatory High School, where they recently invited seniors to return to the school.

Imaan Mohandessi, 18, completes schoolwork at his home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021. Imaan attends Seton Catholic College Preparatory High School, where they recently invited seniors to return to the school.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

For Imaan, a senior this year, starting the year in distance learning went OK. He was able to interact more with his teachers than he could back in the spring, and he was happy about that. But it wasn’t perfect.

“That’s a relief to be able to actually talk to our teachers, but then it just gets so tiring all the time,” Imaan said. “You’re just sitting for hours in a chair staring at your iPad or computer and being on meetings all day.”

For ninth-grader Kimia, she missed the in-person support from teachers and learning aides. She was accustomed to having school staff support her during tests, for instance, by helping read and point to test questions. That’s a lot more difficult to do remotely.

Throughout the fall and winter, Kimia said she just wasn’t processing what she heard during Zoom class. It wasn’t sinking in.

Related: With hybrid learning, students return to a very different kind of school

“I feel like I am not even learning,” Kimia said. “I’m doing the work, but it’s not being processed into my brain and in my memory. When I do the work, I get good grades on it, but I don’t remember anything I learn.”

For much of the last year in distance learning, Kimia has been able to work in a “pod” with friends. She said she’s seen this time impact them too.

“Being in quarantine and online learning for almost a year, it’s not just putting me behind in my learning and social-emotional development, it’s also putting kids without learning disabilities [behind], like some of my friends ... they’re not getting to build their social skills, or help problem solve problems in school,” Kimia said.

Jessie Mohandessi, left, helps her daughter Kimia, 15, stay on task as she completes her virtual schoolwork at their home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021.

Jessie Mohandessi, left, helps her daughter Kimia, 15, stay on task as she completes her virtual schoolwork at their home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Jessie Mohandessi worries about the impact this year will have on learning for students, as well as on students’ opportunities to be identified to receive support services or be diagnosed with a learning disability.

“I think that we’re looking at a whole generation of kids that are going to be even more disadvantaged by that lag and by this year, and I really worry about their outcomes in the long term,” Mohandessi said.


Mina, who is in seventh grade, prefers learning in-person — she describes herself as more of a “hands-on” learner. She likes spending time with her friends in-person too, but it’s been difficult lately.

“It’s really hard for me to get back to hanging out with them, because I’ve been alone, and not hanging out with them for so long, it’s almost like I don’t want to,” Mina said.

“Definitely stuck in a rut,” her mom, Jessie Mohandessi, added.

Shelbe Park tutors students with dyslexia and serves as an advisor for a dyslexia student empowerment group. Even though distance learning expanded reliance on technology, Park said some of the tools students relied on to make learning easier in the past, like “voice to text,” weren’t available when schools made the move to virtual learning.

“It seemed like everybody’s 504 [plan] and [Individualized Education Plan] disappeared,” Park said in September, referring to the types of plans that schools are required by law to implement and follow for children with disabilities.

“They didn’t get any help, so there was that anxiety. A lot of my students really hated having to write in chat because then they had to out themselves to every other student that they couldn’t spell.”

Students and parents had to re-explain their student’s accommodations, or change the way they received services, Park said.

Mina Mohandessi, left, completes her virtual schoolwork as her dog Watson rests nearby, at their home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021.

Mina Mohandessi, left, completes her virtual schoolwork as her dog Watson rests nearby, at their home in Vancouver, Wash., March 12, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Months later, that hadn’t changed. For some students, things had gotten worse. Park said schedules got tighter in the fall compared to the previous spring, and students weren’t getting the feedback they were used to.

“They’re piling on this nonsense work, that the kids are just overwhelmed,” Park said in December.

“I’m seeing a lot of anxiety that I didn’t see in the spring because I think in the spring they just had less work.”

Park said middle school students, in particular, were struggling. But she saw the impact on younger students, too.

“Some of my little third graders, you wouldn’t believe the things you’re asking them to do,” Park said.

“When you have dyslexia, you just don’t have that much time in the day to get what’s done ... some of these little kids are staying up until 9, 10-o-clock at night, and working on the weekends, and then being told that the assignment’s not complete and getting a bad grade.”

Park worries about students’ learning loss. She has seen some students with ADHD “check out” as distance learning continues, with parents doing kids’ homework.

“I just worry about that loss of a year,” Park said. “Our kids are a couple of years behind, and they really can’t afford another year of being more behind.”

But that’s not the case for every student. Park says she’s seeing some students stick with online school permanently, after being forced to try out an alternative to the traditional school model.

“I think we’re going to learn through this whole experiment that maybe some kids do thrive online,” she said.

Now, families across the country are deciding whether to send their children back to classrooms for the end of the year.

In-person learning not a ‘choice’ for some

Like many students, the school year for Athan, a fourth-grader at Alameda Elementary in Portland, started online. It also started out rough.

Athan began the year without his familiar paraeducator, a staff member who works one-on-one with him. She’d known Athan since kindergarten, and Athan’s mom, Cindi Polychronis, said that made the transition to online learning back in spring 2020 a little easier for her son, who is living with Down syndrome.

“In the beginning, it was all so foreign — ‘What is this? What is going on and why is she on the video, and why are we not going to school?’” said Athan’s mom, Cindi Polynchronis, recalling her son’s questions in September.

“Just having that consistent presence and someone he knew and trusted was so helpful in helping him to understand that we’re not going the same direction anymore.”

Volumes of education research show that strong relationships between students and teachers or staff members are essential for student learning. And in a time that has been so tumultuous for everyone, having those relationships can be the key to helping students succeed, particularly for students who rely on specialized support.

Athan’s paraeducator eventually returned to his school, and Polychronis said her son is making progress, in part due to his teachers helping to make that happen.

“We are making it work. It’s not easy, it’s a hard model for him — it’s definitely harder than learning in the building, but he is learning, and he is making progress,” Polychronis said.

“He is able to write more words, he is able to read more words.”

PPS is planning an April 1 return for elementary students to a hybrid learning model that will include some in-person instruction for students.

Related: Portland Public Schools reaches ‘in-person’ instruction deal with teachers union

Athan won’t be there.

“We’re not in a position to put our kids back in school, because Athan is so high risk,” Polychronis said. “Until he is vaccinated, we’re in extreme lockdown.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said that families who choose to stay in comprehensive distance learning will be allowed to do so. Polychronis said she’s frustrated with Brown’s recent order prioritizing in-person learning and worries her family will end up with a “lesser” model, in distance learning, for Athan or his sister.

“It’s very frustrating to hear the school district and the governor continue to refer to returning to school as a choice,” Polychronis said.

“I don’t have a choice — there’s no choice for people who have a high-risk family member staying at home. Just that language is hard for me to hear.”

Polychronis is also concerned about the district’s plan and educator safety. Her husband works in PPS as a counselor.

When it’s time to go back to school, possibly in the fall, Polychronis worries about Athan’s reentry into a school building. But right now, she’s focused on creating a positive environment at home and focusing on the good that’s come out of this time, like the ability to spend more time together.

“With both kids, I don’t speak of learning loss, and I’m not worried about learning loss,” “Polychronis said. “They’ll be fine ... they’ve been in school all year.”

Maria Rangel plans to keep her children at home too. With only a few months left in the school year, and the in-person experience altered by safety measures and other protocols, she said she’s choosing to prioritize her children’s mental and physical health — by keeping them home.

“I think it will be more harm than good for them to return ... I just don’t want them to go through it because they’ve been through so much,” Rangel said.

She worries, though, that the time out of school may put her children behind their peers.

“I’m just hoping that the schools are going to be understanding of what we all went through and that there’s a plan for helping every student, and not just generalizing, like ‘this is where we’re all going to start,’” Rangel said.

She also fears her children losing confidence in their learning if they’re behind students who returned in-person.

Other families are choosing differently.

“My kids need to see their teachers,” said Jessie Mohandessi.

All three of her kids are back in school. Mohandessi said Mina’s grades are already improving, though she is nervous to take off her mask for lunch.

Imaan said he’s happy to be back at school, with a dedicated space for learning.

“It’s really nice to see my friends and my teacher on a regular basis,” Imaan said.

For Kimia, she’s able to attend in-person school with the same students she’s been in a distance learning “pod” with. Mohandessi said she’s both “happy and tired” with the new schedule.

Mohandessi says her house is a bit quieter for the first time in a year.


Tags: Health, Education, COVID-19, Portland Public Schools, Oregon, Vancouver