Keep students with Down syndrome safe during in-person learning

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed Down syndrome as a high-risk COVID condition
By: | February 11, 2021

A Wisconsin district placed an eighth-grade student with Down syndrome in a private therapeutic synchronous virtual program in mid-March when schools closed due to the pandemic.

Her parents filed for due process because they wanted her back in the district school for the following school year.

However, the district showed that the private therapeutic school’s virtual instruction program met the student’s individualized needs and provided the small-class instruction, peer interaction, staff support, and feedback she required.

In that case, at-home virtual instruction was the best placement for the student. However, students with disabilities are to be educated in the least restrictive environment, and for some students with Down syndrome, that will be in a physical classroom with peers.

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But, individuals with Down syndrome who contract COVID-19 are more susceptible to severe illness, said Nicole Baumer, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Down Syndrome Program.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed Down syndrome as a high-risk condition, she said. Individuals with Down syndrome are more likely to have other co-occurring conditions, such as respiratory disease, heart disease, or sleep apnea that put them at higher risk for becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

“Certainly, mask wearing, hand washing, and keeping physically distanced from other people are all important safety measures people should be doing to make sure environments are safe for people with Down syndrome,” Baumer said.

Here are a few other steps you might want to take to keep a student with Down syndrome safe if they attend school in person.

Offer additional support: Students with Down syndrome may have different learning and communication styles, therefore needing additional support to learn and use safety measures to keep themselves safe, Baumer said.

For example, students with more developmental challenges or co-occurring conditions like autism, ADHD, or behavioral challenges, may need a more intensive approach, including positive reinforcement strategies and intensive behavior support therapy to learn not to hug others, get too close to others, or touch others’ belongings.

Use visual supports: Visual supports are really important, Baumer said. “Having pictures, modeling, practicing — those are all things that can really be helpful. Have visual reminders always available.”

Students with Down syndrome tend to have cognitive traits that can make learning potentially easier and can serve well for learning rules, Baumer said.

They can be tenacious, internalize rules, and integrate habits of behaviors they are taught. “They can be quite good at learning habits for self-care,” she said. Use social stories and video models to teach students with Down syndrome the rules for compliance with recommended preventative measures.

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Help keep masks on: Based on their facial structure, masks may slip down the faces of students with Down syndrome, Baumer said. They may also be wearing glasses or have hearing aids, both of which can hinder mask placement. Help students keep their masks on by ensuring that they are molded along the top so they can fit along their noses or affixing them to students’ glasses.

Be calm: One thing fairly common in individuals with Down syndrome is that they can be very intuitive and sensitive to emotions around them, Baumer said. Often, if students sense that people around them are anxious, then they will become really in tune with that and also be anxious, she said.

“Having calm demeanors and simple, consistent messages can be really helpful,” Baumer said.

Focus on what the student can do: Put a positive spin on the new rules by showing and telling students what they can do rather than so much of what they can’t do, Baumer said. Instead of using “no” statements, such as “no hugging” or “no touching,” say instead, “It’s safe to wave to your friend,” or “It’s safe to give smiles.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.