Stamina and stigma: Student challenges after contracting COVID-19

District leaders must consider how to address students recovering from coronavirus who are returning to school, particularly students with disabilities who may have lingering issues that interfere with learning.

A student with a disability who is recovering from contracting the novel coronavirus may have lingering issues that may interfere with his learning. The student and his family may also have concerns about his mental health and interactions with other students.

Start thinking now about how you will address returning a student to learning after recovering from COVID-19, experts advise.

“It’s really going to have to be handled carefully so we’re focused on the student and the student’s learning,” says Becky Conner, special education director at Catoosa County (Ga.) Public Schools. “Each child will have a different recovery period with additional needs. Everybody’s going to have to learn how to be flexible to the most extent possible.”

Follow these tips to ensure students’ smooth return to learning after contracting COVID-19:

· Investigate the student’s ability to focus on learning. Talk with the student and his parents about the student’s level of stamina throughout the day and whether he can return to a regular schedule of distance learning if your schools continue to be closed, Conner says. “We have to make the decision based on what the student can actually accomplish. We have to look at the student’s goals and progress and see what we can do through digital learning.”

If schools are open, the student may benefit from receiving homebound instruction for a brief period and continuing to work on his digital learning plan rather than returning to his school building.

“If anybody’s concerned about returning to school with a weakened immune system, we’ll continue to offer digital learning,” Conner says. “I have a student who has a lot of health issues, and we’re already planning to provide him services through digital learning next year. I know he’s not going to be able to come back to school yet.”

Educators may also be able to have the student follow a blended schedule to participate in some classes or activities that pose a lower risk.

· Look at the student’s mental health needs. Encourage a school counselor or school psychologist to communicate with the student’s case manager and family about whether any signs indicate that the student has emerging mental health needs. “The student’s circumstances may have changed,” Conner says. If needed, school counselors can provide families with outside resources for mental health services.

If the student had already been a part of a school counseling group before the pandemic, make sure she can participate via videoconference with other students from home regardless of whether school is open, Conner says. Also ensure individual remote or in-person school counseling is available when necessary.

· Know when to increase parental support. A student’s behavior and need for related services may change after experiencing COVID-19, Conner says. Revisit the student’s remote or in-person behavior plan and need for occupational therapy, physical therapy, and other related services and offer training to parents if they will need to provide more support to their child as he returns to remote learning after being ill.

Also recognize that you may need to send home more materials for the student and parents to engage in activities than what you sent at the beginning of school closures.

· Maintain student confidentiality. Before the student returns either remotely or in person, remind teachers and other staff not to publicly mention the student’s illness unless the parents and student have given permission. You don’t want to open the student up to ostracization or bullying based on a lack of understanding or fear. “We wouldn’t share that a student had COVID-19 any more than we would share if a student came back from a stomach bug,” she says. “Parents have to guide that.” Instead, staff may want to just stick to saying, “Welcome back” when a student rejoins a virtual or in-person classroom.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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