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Clarkston mom navigates COVID learning gap with special needs son

The Morente family moved home from overseas due to pandemic learning concerns
Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-10 17:00:52-05

CLARKSTON, Mich. (WXYZ) — You can tell right away when you meet three-and-a-half-year-old Cruz Morente that he's curious, happy, and loved.

While playing outside with his new puppy Lexi, his giggles are infectious. He seems like any other spunky toddler, eager to run around and explore his little world.

But what you might not realize when you first meet Cruz, is that he's on the autism spectrum and is still non-verbal.

“There’s no standardized test where I can say well now he can add, now he can do this. Because his world is just so different," said Cruz's mom, Summer Morente.

Up until August, their entire family was living in the Philippines. Summer is a metro Detroit native but she and her husband had jobs in Manila.

The Morente Family, who moved back to Michigan from the Philippines in August

Due to COVID lock-downs in the the Philippines, Cruz's cognitive therapy, especially critical during these young years, had to move online.

Summer was tasked with walking Cruz through his exercises while an instructor helped guide her via Zoom.

Things like word association, sensory exploration, or even identifying feelings was done through a screen.

Web Extra | Clarkston mom navigates COVID learning gap with special needs son

Overnight like so many other parents, Summer had to start wearing multiple hats; but in her case, she was needing to learn therapy techniques to help Cruz hit important life milestones.

“He had to work so hard. And I am certainly not a therapist, I did the best I could," Summer told Action News.

Morente Family

Ultimately, Cruz's progress stalled under the remote model. For a short time, Summer said her son's therapy returned to face-to-face only to quickly revert back to all virtual due to the Philippines' COVID restrictions.

“In that month he made more progress than he did the entire six months that I was working with him," she said.

So the family made a difficult and a fast decision; moving back home to metro Detroit.

“We packed a four bedroom condo in two days," Summer said. "We had to do everything possible we could to give him every opportunity.” 

It comes as no surprise that the COVID learning gap hit general education classrooms too, and has impacted students at every grade level.

Web Extra | Addressing the learning gap due to COVID-19

According to an analysis by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative within Michigan State's College of Education published back in December 2021, students who had to learn online for all or most of the last academic year, fared worse overall and tended to learn less than those who were able to learn in a classroom.

A learning gap was also something educators and administrators across the state expected would happen.

“There has been a loss of learning. From students not logging in, some students we had to track down," said DeAngelo Alexander, superintendent of Detroit Service Learning Academy.

"One way of helping to prevent some students from falling lower and to help students not fall lower, has been providing them with extra support," Alexander told Action News.

That extra support comes in the form of more one-on-one help in light of pandemic-era learning challenges.

“A lot of students they tend to miss more assignments and not be as focused in class which impacts their grades," said University of Michigan student and Detroit Education Society tutor, Madison Bates of remote instruction.

Now she and her fellow tutors like fellow U of M student Adhavan Arivalagan are helping to fill those gaps. And while much of the learning delays can be blamed on the pandemic forcing instruction online, they've also found tutoring remotely has helped them reach more students.

In a traditional classroom setting DES had a student load of around 70 pre-COVID. That number surged to 250 students at its peak, a result of not only the program expanding, but also an increased interest and need from students, said DES founder and president, Lalit Sethi.

"Since the pandemic forced us to go virtual, we started tutoring from home one-on-one," Sethi said. The classroom physically became limited due to capacity issues.

It's a unique situation now; educators helping students virtually overcome a learning lag caused by online instruction.

"Being in your room, you're more prone to going on your phone or watching YouTube videos or playing Fortnite or whatever the latest game is," Arivalagan said of remote learning's impact on older students.

DES is now in need of more tutors to meet this growing student load and eventually, return to in-person tutoring.

Arivalagan said especially for the older students, he has now taken on the role of mentor, not just tutor. He's able to meet students where they're at in a way teachers sometimes can't, he said.

"We try our best to be like, hey we understand what you're going through," he said. "If we can just take baby steps, that will really make a change."

As for Cruz, he's now in therapy face-to-face and with other kids his age. Summer is already seeing positive changes with his development, and knows she made the right choice.

"There’s so many of us that struggle with what our children's future will look like. It’s so unknown," she said. “Just those little tiny things where he shares just a piece of what he loves and enjoys, makes everything worth it.”