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A Small Wyoming Town Has Attracted Families Looking For In-Person Special Education

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The switch to online learning during the pandemic has been especially hard for students with learning challenges. So much so that some parents are willing to move to a different state so their child can receive special education services in person. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska reports on one place that's attracted many families.

KAMILA KUDELSKA, BYLINE: When the pandemic hit a year ago, Amy Heffington saw her 11-year-old daughter Charlotte regress very quickly.

AMY HEFFINGTON: I don't even feel like we ever even got over the hump of figuring out how to do things on a computer and being comfortable in the app. So learning anything never even occurred.

KUDELSKA: Charlotte, who lived in San Clemente, Calif., has ADHD and reading comprehension problems. Her school's individual education program really helped, but all of that stopped when school went online. And then last year, California announced that schools were going to stay online only.

HEFFINGTON: So we made the decision to move to Wyoming, choosing Powell specifically for their schools and Charlotte being the main reason.

KUDELSKA: Powell, Wyo., is a small agricultural town east of Yellowstone National Park. Heffington grew up on a homestead, so this wasn't too much of a difference for her. But Charlotte says it took some getting used to.

CHARLOTTE: There's not very many things to do because once you do everything, you get kind of sick of it.

KUDELSKA: Charlotte was one of nearly 40 new students with special needs who enrolled in Powell's schools this school year. Half were from out of state. Dr. Wanda Blanchett, the dean of education at Rutgers University, says early research shows that students with some kinds of disabilities really struggle with online learning.

WANDA BLANCHETT: So it's very difficult for those students to be put in front of a computer and to really have meaningful interactions in those kinds of setting without someone literally sitting there with them.

KUDELSKA: She says it's important to note that not everyone has the privilege to move. Those who were able to take advantage of Powell's in-person classrooms created some real challenges for the small district that only has about 2,000 students total. Special Services director Ginger Sleep says they advertised for an additional full-time special education teacher, but no one who was qualified responded. So they hired seven new temporary paraeducators and increased hours for 10 existing staff members.

GINGER SLEEP: We were really trying to see what we already had with our existing staff and were we are able to meet those needs.

KUDELSKA: But Sleep estimates that's meant spending an additional $82,000 on special education needs this year. She says that she's not sure all the families who moved here will stay.

SLEEP: Sometimes when people come to a school district or a state they've never been in, the weather and (laughter) different things - they're like, oh, wow, this is very rural.

KUDELSKA: The Heffingtons plan to stay. Charlotte has started babysitting and has met some great friends.

CHARLOTTE: My overall, like, mental health went up way better, and I got way happier here.

KUDELSKA: Her friends and family back in California still haven't started in-person learning, so her family feels like moving over 1,000 miles away to Wyoming was the right decision.

For NPR News, I'm Kamila Kudelska.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE'S "LAZULI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.