For students with disabilities, virtual learning isn’t an option


The PosAbilities Academy is teaching five students in person, building reading, math, and vocational skills.

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LEESBURG, Va. (WDVM) — The PosAbilities Academy is lifting a load off parents’ and caregivers’ shoulders in Loudoun County. The secondary vocational school is for students with disabilities and, while public schools are virtual this semester, PosAbilities is open for onsite learning. 

“We had to be realistic with what they can do and cannot do,” said Founder and Executive Director Claudia Skinner. “To fulfill our vision, which is to prepare them for a job, distance learning just doesn’t fulfill that vision.” The school was closed down for distance learning until the summer. Only five students are enrolled, and there’s plenty of space for social distancing. 

The students, between the ages of 14 and 22, aren’t on the same academic track. Their classes, schedules, and services are individualized. They’re focusing on “functional academics,” like reading, writing, and math, and spending the rest of the time on vocational skills. On Friday, the students were learning about U.S. states.

“They’re learning different states, and they’re learning specifically the state they live in because we want them to be able to fill out a form; because we want them to be able to if they need to say, “This is my address, this is where I live, this is the state abbreviation of where I live,” Skinner said. 

While their paths may be different, they’ve all got the same end goal: to live independently with a job or to be enrolled in post-secondary education. At least half the day is spent collaborating and working on communication and problem-solving skills. 

Since she enrolled her son at PosAbilities, Megan Clarke says her son is more excited and empowered, especially because he’s learning in a style that suits him. “The way he learns is, ‘When am I ever going to use this? Does this even matter?’ so he easily turns off. He easily will get noncompliant when he doesn’t understand the bigger picture,” Clarke said.

On Thursday, the group picked peppers at A Farm Less Ordinary and Clarke’s son returned home with a smile.

PosAbilities has partnered with a company called Repurpose, which was founded to employ people with disabilities. The students are working on refurbishing cabinet doors to be resold. Before the pandemic started, the students were spending lunchtime in the kitchen, making meals, and taking inventory of the pantry. 

All of that skill-building would be disrupted if PosAbilities was fully online. And for about three months, it was. Skinner says people with disabilities are dependent on a reliable schedule. A break in schedule can cause behavioral issues and even depression in some. 

“We may think, ‘Oh, they just lost three months,’” Skinner said. “But in reality, for an individual with disabilities, three months could mean years of regression because the three months that they lost — now they lost skills that will take us years to gain back.” 

Clarke says her son digressed this spring when PosAbilties closed. When the academy reopened, he was so excited to get out of the house. “Instead of fights going to school every day, and hiding things and trying to avoid going to school, he loves to go to school. So that’s just the gift. That’s the gift. And it’s worth it all for that,” Clarke said.

Skinner, whose daughter is enrolled at PosAbilities, can’t imagine how working parents balance virtual school and caring for their children with disabilities. If her academy doesn’t seem like the right fit, she wants to work with parents to find the right match for them elsewhere. 

“We’re here to support our community,” Skinner said. “Our community of providers, we all know each other. So maybe I won’t be the right fit, but I know plenty of people, plenty of professionals, who are willing to lend a hand.”

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