As parents, there are many exigent issues right now, but the most immediate is arguably the academic and emotional well-being of school-aged kids most affected by what's known as the COVID-19 slide.

By Nefertiti Austin
January 13, 2021
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An image of a boy on his computer doing schoolwork.
Credit: Getty Images.

Last year did a number on parents. Many of us were not prepared to wear the additional hats of educator, health professional, diversity expert, tech support, and civics instructor, but nonetheless, the transition occurred at warp speed, all the while as COVID-19 cases exploded, Zoom fatigue set in, and racism played loudly in the background.

Now there are increased rates of both depression and anxiety in children and there's what's been referred to as "learning loss"—or educational setbacks due to COVID-19 disruptions.

According to an August 2020 paper, "COVID Slide: Research on Learning Loss & Recommendations to Close the Gap," school closures disrupted how students engaged in the formal academic learning process. Children quickly pivoted from in-person instruction to online learning, and overnight, access to Wi-Fi, laptops, iPads, tablets, or a PC became mandatory.

All kids have been directly impacted by the pandemic, but the "COVID slide" will disproportionately hurt some children more than others.

For poor, Black, and Latino families, the COVID slide, coupled with the typical summer slide, has already caused severe learning loss. By some counts, students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. Some 37 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children, 19 percent of Black children, and 17 percent of Hispanic children also lack internet access in their homes, compared to 12 percent for Asian and white children, respectively.

But when regular in-person therapeutic interventions for mental, emotional, and behavioral issues were immediately suspended when schools went virtual, students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for neurodiverse issues related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, speech, or autism also found themselves in a virtual gap.

In districts that provided virtual therapy, parents were pressed to try to supervise and help with digital sessions and many found the new role to be stressful and unsustainable.

"Unfortunately, the way most schools are rolling out distance learning is exacerbating already existing challenges for differently-wired children, especially those with learning and attention issues," says Debbie Reber, founder of the podcast and community Tilt Parenting and author of Differently Wired. "These parents feel the added pressure of making sure their child attends to online learning which, for most, is a losing battle that's resulting in stress for the whole family."

And though telehealth promotes the continuity of care, this delivery method obviously requires internet access and a device—two tools that aren't always givens.

Plus, telehealth compromises valued in-person interactions between children and therapists. Personal trust, achieved by face-to-face regular meetings, is often essential for successful therapeutic outcomes, and the sudden disruption of them meant neurodiverse kids had to adjust to an uncertain new normal.

It's a big problem. There are nearly 7 million students with disabilities in the U.S., which is about 14 percent of national public school enrollment. These children are guaranteed free public education and special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, even with these protections, school districts were not immediately prepared to meet the needs caused by the pivot to distance learning.

Neurodiverse kids might experience high levels of frustration, confusion, and depression because they cannot keep up with their peers, too. And these emotions can be heightened by a lack of internet access.

Amid the chaos, some parents have tried to push back, setting limits with the school about what their child will and won't be able to do, explains Reber. Others have chosen to opt out altogether and homeschool or "unschool" until the pandemic is over.

The current crisis in education is a teachable moment about privilege, equity, inclusion, and challenges faced by children with neurodiversity. But what are you supposed to do if you and your children are the ones paying the price? Here, a few suggestions to help your neurodiverse child through a potential COVID-19 slide.

Look Into Low-Cost or Free Internet Services

Don't have access to the web? Tech companies such as Spectrum are offering free Wi-Fi for families that qualify for free lunch programs. Discounts, and even free internet service, is also available through governmental programs, as long as one member of the household is eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Veterans Pension and Survivor Benefits, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Medicaid, or Tribal Programs for Native Americans. You can also check with your wireless phone provider for low-cost internet service.

Seek Out Corporate Contributions

Some companies are looking for ways to support their local community. Take advantage of this opportunity and ask your employer to consider in-kind contributions such as providing hard copies of homework packets, lending tech support, or donate working laptops, webcams, keyboards, paper, toner, or printers. This will ensure that children won't miss out if they don't have access to the internet and you can take advantage of the programs.

Request Devices

Ask your school principal for one device for each student in your home. If they don't have the power to grant that request, contact the school superintendent or your local representative.

Maximize an Existing IEP

"If a student's current IEP isn't supporting their challenges surrounding remote learning, parents can (and should) request an update that includes accommodations that will," says Reber. "Examples include adding in more movement breaks, allowing a student to be off-camera for part or all of their Zoom classes, sending hard copies of learning materials in the mail, and so on." Perhaps your child's teacher could assign a scavenger hunt or outside activity such as watering plants or measuring their shadow with chalk. These are fun ways to practice math, science, and sequencing skills off-screen. If necessary, be prepared to explain your observations of your child's frustration or lack of ability to sustain focus or engagement. The goal is to partner with your child's teacher.

Nefertiti Austin is a memoirist and author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America. She lives with her two children in Los Angeles.