Adjusting to the New Virtual School Year

With the new school year just around the corner, many parents have more questions than answers about how to navigate the new world of virtual learning. These questions often take on additional significance for parents caring for children with special needs and chronic medical conditions.  Such questions include:

  • Will the 504 Plan or IEP, Individualized Education Plan, be followed in the virtual setting?  Will the accommodations and services on the educational plans be addressed in the virtual setting?
  • If the virtual setting has the entire class participating, how can my child’s special needs be addressed, particularly if my child needs individual or small group instruction?
  • As a parent, how can I help my child with instructional material when I am not a certified teacher and do not know the curriculum?
  • How is it possible to keep a child with attention issues, focused and on task in the virtual setting for 4-6 hours a day?
  • As parents, who do we contact if we feel our child is falling behind or the virtual setting is not working?
  • Are the specialists, such as the reading or math specialist, available to work with my child?

Alma Morgan, M.Ed., Educational Consultant for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and Summit Emotional Health, hears questions like these every day, and she understands parents’ concerns. “Many children with chronic illness often have late effects of treatment that include: attention difficulties, short term memory challenges, and slower processing speed,” she explains. “In addition, we are seeing more anxiety than ever, for children, teens and even their parents.”

While Morgan is hopeful that teachers and administrators have been working hard to create an effective and meaningful curriculum for online learning, she acknowledges that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all program, especially for students with chronic and complex medical challenges.

Parents may feel a sense of powerlessness about this new mode of teaching and learning, and wonder whether it will work for their child. However, there are things they can do to help support their child’s unique needs:

Keep a detailed log of how much instructional time your child is receiving. Morgan advises, “Make notes about what’s working – and what isn’t.”

Communicate. “Parents are encouraged to communicate on a routine basis with their child’s teachers and school staff,” Morgan says. “Right now, we’re just speculating what will work. That’s why parent feedback is so important.”

Be vocal. If parents feel like their child’s learning needs are not being met or their child is falling behind academically, they need to request a meeting with the school based team to discuss these concerns.  A comprehensive evaluation may be needed to address specific areas of concern.

Be creative and flexible. “As parents and teachers work together, it may be helpful to introduce creative ways in multiple modalities to demonstrate mastery,” Morgan explains. “Each child has a unique learning style. Teachers need to come up with creative ways to show that learning has been achieved.” For example, your child might learn best by listening to a book on tape or acting out a story. The child might show comprehension of a book or story through a visual poster board project or a song rather than writing it in a standard book report form. Since students won’t be receiving the same access to specials like art, physical education and music, it can be helpful to roll these experiences into the curriculum of the core subjects. “This is a time unlike ever before,” Morgan says. “We need to dig deep, be creative, and do things differently.”

Request a modified workload, if indicated. “If parents are feeling like their child is overwhelmed, they can ask for a modified workload emphasizing quality over quantity,” says Morgan. “For example, can they show mastery by doing five math problems instead of ten?”

Pursue more specialized learning opportunities. If a child continues to struggle academically in the large group virtual learning format, parents can request individual instruction or small group support. “Talk with the teacher about this or request a meeting with the school-based team,” Morgan advises.

Seek additional support. If parents notice changes in their child’s mood or behavior, or have educational concerns, they are encouraged to seek support from their pediatrician and/or mental health professional.  To schedule an Educational Consultation with Alma Morgan, please contact Temple Basham at Summit Emotional Health at (804) 562-6557 x 706 or

“Parents are going to have to be proactive and work closely with the teachers and school personnel to see that their child’s unique needs will be met in this new instructional setting,” says Morgan. “Now, more than ever, parents need to be actively involved.”

Written by Debbie Fromer, this article is provided through a partnership with Better2gether RVA.