On Friday, 6-year-old Tucker Zimmerman, a first grader at Hindley Elementary School in Darien, had three hands-on lessons.

Tucker is used to this. However, these lessons were different — Instead of his teachers, they were taught by his parents, Jeff and Lauren Zimmerman.

Like all other school children in town and across the state, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont has ordered all schools to close until at least April 20. However, this can possibly extend longer.

In light of that news, all parents of children in Darien Public Schools recently were informed by the Special Education department that students will be taking part in eLearning, which means they’ll be receiving their education through online instruction.

Yet, according to Zimmerman, for Tucker, who is autistic and has high support needs, eLearning cannot provide some of the services he requires, such as the in-person, physical interaction with his therapists.

This is a challenge facing many families with children who receive special education services, Zimmerman added.

As part of his regular school day, Tucker has received daily speech and language services as well as occupational and physical therapy. He receives services through his school throughout the summer months as well.

Concerns about regression

Since school is currently not in session, Zimmerman said he’s very concerned that Tucker will regress in all of the skills that he has learned so far.

“Every time we’ve had a disruption in services or a change of people who are providing services to Tucker — either coming back from summer break, or a teacher who goes on maternity leave — everything gets harder,” Zimmerman said.

“For a lot of kids like Tucker, consistency across everything is important,” he added. “For him, going two weeks without therapy — he wouldn’t even be treading water. He would be going backwards.”

To date, Tucker has started receiving lessons using tela-therapy, which is part of eLearning.

Tele-therapy is a customized distance therapy instruction where the therapists who regularly work with the special needs child provide instructions for a lesson or activity. The parents or caregiver videos the activity with the child. Then, the therapist conferences online to review the activity and discuss the next one.

“While this is not ideal, it’s remarkably helpful in both maintaining structure and bringing lessons they’re working on in school, into the home,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said he and his wife are fortunate to have the flexibility in their work schedules to work from home and devote the time to the tela-therapy program. He said he doesn’t know how a single parent or parents that don’t have a flexible schedule would be able to successfully administer such a program.

Roles of teachers verses parents

Part of the “challenge” right now, according to Zimmerman, in having him and his wife deliver those services at home, involves the separate roles of teachers verses parents.

“We are imposing this work on him in a way he’s isn’t used to at home. Part of the disruption he’s experiencing now is that there are new roles here,” he said.

“There will be a transition period for all of us in doing it. We hope to be able to do as good as job as possible, so Tucker will not regress — but progress,” Zimmerman added.

According to Zimmerman, the eLearning parent coaching model is the “clearly best and only one that can be done right now, but it’s clearly not a sufficient substitute.”

“The real issue will be what will happen once the worst of this passes and school is back in session,” Zimmerman said. “How will this lost time be made up? How will the regression or failure to achieve IEP [Individualized Education Program] objectives be addressed by the district?”

Planning

In a conversation with The Darien Times on Monday, March 23, Dr. Alan Addley, Superintendent of Darien Public Schools, said in collaboration with parents, the District is making “every effort to the best of its ability and to the greatest extent possible to meet the needs of all our students, including meeting the requirements of students receiving Special Education services, acceleration and interventions.”

On Friday, March 20, in a letter sent to all families whose children receive special education services at Darien public schools, Shirley K. Klein, Assistant Superintendent of Special Education and Student Services, said the special education teachers and related service providers have worked “indefatigably” to plan digital instructional opportunities and resources to support their child’s educational needs.

“Instruction and related services will be provided through various eLearning platforms, including Google Classroom, Google Meet, Google Voice, and Zoom.

The letter continued, “Special Education teachers and related services providers will post synchronous and asynchronous instructional lessons, resources, and activities for your child. Staff will work with you to coordinate access, and develop a method for work to be submitted.”

“All hands on deck”

At a recent Special Board of Education meeting, Klein said that not only are instructors going to provide what they can during the remote learning period, but they’ll make sure the transition process goes smoothly for when school does resume.

“We’re going to monitor what we can’t do, so as soon as we have access to students again, we’ll be able to resume those services,” Klein said. “We have all hands on deck so they’re just waiting to start working with students again.”

She added that educators know that “nothing replaces relationships with children and teachers. We also know with our intensive learners, that we can’t replicate that digitally. Teachers are reaching out to families to ensure that we find ways to really stay connected.”

Courtney Darby, co-chair of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), said that according to state information, there are 16.9 percent of children have disabilities in Darien.

“We understand student health and safety is the primary concern during the district shut down and believe the district is working hard to provide all students with resources and enrichment activities,” Darby said. “Communication is especially important during this time.”

Overall, Zimmerman said he has been pleased to live in a district with “such a great special needs program.”

“The teachers, therapists and para-professionals are terrific and the administration has shown a commitment to supporting the therapies our kids need and working through this unprecedented circumstance,” he said. “We hope that our district will receive the necessary help from the state and federal government to continue to support our kids.”

In regard to delivering Tucker’s therapy, Zimmerman said he and his family are hoping to “at least tread water and hoping to be able to swim a little bit. We know we can’t do the same job that his incredible teachers and therapists do, but with their help, we’re going to do the best we can.”

For the most updated information on Darien Public Schools’ eLearning program, visit the Darien Public Schools website and click on eLearning tab.

Watch the Darien Public School District Board of Education meeting on the Darien Public Schools website.

sfox@darientimes.com