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Georgia Powers’ teacher was talking, but the little girl was falling asleep in front of the laptop her parents had set up in front of her.

Georgia’s dad, Aaron Powers, brought the computer closer to the 10-year-old. “Sorry, we’re trying,” he explained via laptop to the girl’s fourth-grade teacher at Heston Elementary, a woman the family had never met in person.

“Come on, Georgia,” Aaron Powers said gently.

To Georgia’s left, her big sister, Madison, 12, sat at the dining table attempting math problems on her laptop. Their sister, Logan, 8, twirled from the banister a few feet away, too keyed up to attend to her lessons. Mom Syrita Powers was trying to coax Logan down, simultaneously supervising all three girls.

COVID-19 has narrowed the world for millions, shifting the way people work, learn, and interact with one another. Syrita and Aaron Powers of West Philadelphia haven’t contracted the virus, but it has affected their day-to-day profoundly. They also worry it has affected the future of their three children, all of whom have special needs, two of whom are nonverbal.

Both Logan and Maddie are autistic, and Georgia has intellectual disabilities. The Powers girls are among the nearly 20,000 students in Philadelphia who have been identified as having at least one learning disability, a vast group for whom the effects of the pandemic — and the absence from school — have generally been pronounced.

Syrita Powers tries not to dwell on the hard things about this last, life-altering year: the ways Logan, Georgia, and Madison have slipped behind on academic and life skills, how parenting three high-needs kids through a pandemic has meant she and her husband have had to forgo doctors’ appointments for their own health concerns — fibromyalgia for Syrita, kidney disease for Aaron.

Powers took a deep breath.

“I wouldn’t say all this — online learning, everything — has grown on me, but it’s all we have,” she said.

Since April 2020, an Inquirer photographer and reporter have periodically checked in with the Powers family, chronicling how they are coping with pandemic-related changes.

Life had a predictable rhythm pre-COVID: school, trips to the playground, dance, and an after-school recreation center program for Maddie.

It wasn’t easy. The girls’ needs are significant, especially Logan’s and Georgia’s, but Syrita Powers has spent years advocating for her children, and she and her husband are a solid team. Therapies and tutoring the girls received through school helped, as did the extra support of paraprofessionals assigned to the younger Powers sisters on their buses and in classrooms.

Aaron worked at a car dealership, and Syrita used school hours to keep the house running, attend to her own medical needs, run online support groups, and help other parents advocate for their kids with special needs.

That all changed abruptly when in-person school ground to a halt in March 2020. (Because of a lack of technology available to city students, teacher-led instruction didn’t resume until last May.)

School is important to Syrita: Her kids had perfect attendance since prekindergarten, she proudly notes, so the girls logged on to classes every day.

But for Georgia and Logan, online school is mostly going through the motions, and their educational goals — holding a pencil, writing a few words, sitting down, following instructions — languished. Their therapies stopped when school went online. (The district offered some therapies remotely, but online services were not an option for the youngest Powers girls, Syrita said.)

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss?

“It’s so hard, especially during a pandemic,” Syrita said. “When they went to school every day, they knew, where’s your cubby, put your lunch here now, this is circle time, these are my peers. They know this isn’t school.”

Boundaries blurred. Aaron was laid off from his job. The living room became the classroom, the playground, the laundromat. With everyone home nearly all the time, life often felt like an endless circle of cooking, dishes, laundry, the same four walls, Syrita said.

“I used to only let them watch TV Mondays and Thursdays; that went out the window with COVID. Now they watch TV all the time,” Syrita said in February, nearly a year into the pandemic. “Before, they couldn’t jump on the couch, now they jump on the couch. They couldn’t ride bikes in the house before and now they can, because what else is there to do?”

Logan, who has autism and sensory issues, is in perpetual motion, climbing, twirling, requiring constant supervision lest she hurt herself. Georgia, who has intellectual disabilities, is often exhausted during school hours; she gets little sleep at night since the pandemic began. Maddie, who is also autistic, is full of energy and enthusiasm for school, but sometimes gets distracted by her sisters, taking it upon herself to calm them down, sit with them when they’re agitated.

The girls can pay attention to lessons better when they’re apart, but they gravitate toward one another. Syrita and Aaron sometimes end Georgia and Logan’s school days early so Maddie can get work done, or because the little girls are too sleepy to sit in front of a computer for a full school day.

“We keep the routine going, but how much education are they getting? They have no structure, and they’re losing a sense of knowing it’s OK to walk out the door. The setback is real,” Syrita said.

The girls have all regressed. Maddie is behind in math; her social skills have slipped. She now carries around a stuffed animal, occasionally slipping into conversations with him. Georgia and Logan are no longer toilet-trained.

“I just want my children to have the best shot at everything,” Syrita said. “I don’t want my kids to end up in a home when I’m gone. I want them to have life skills.”

The Philadelphia School District remained fully virtual for nearly a year; Logan now boards a yellow bus to attend Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia four days a week, and Georgia returned to Heston four days a week on Monday. Maddie will be eligible to go back to Barry two days a week on May 10.

With summer looming, Syrita and Aaron worry that’s not enough time in the classroom.

The first day Logan, a second grader, was scheduled to return to school, the little girl grew upset when she realized Madison wasn’t going to school with her. Ultimately, the bus didn’t show up that day.

The next morning, Aaron and Syrita were nervous but put on brave faces when the bus showed up shortly after sunrise. Aaron got Logan’s coat, and Syrita triple-checked Logan’s bag for her sanitizing wipes, Pull-Ups, and hand sanitizer. Logan has sensory issues and has an exemption from wearing a mask, per her doctor’s order.

“OK, big girl, today’s the big day. Go, Logan!” Syrita said.

“Bye, Mama,” Aaron said, patting Logan’s shoulder. “Love you.”

Soon after the bus pulled away from the family’s rowhouse, Syrita got a call from the paraprofessional assigned to assist Logan on the bus: Logan refused to go into the school and stood outside the building, screaming and crying. She tried to run away.

School staff finally got the little girl inside, but Syrita was visibly upset, wondering if she did the right thing in sending Logan back.

“That was my biggest fear,” she said. “They don’t want to go back to school, but it’s been a whole year of regression. COVID has been catastrophic, but this transition hasn’t been good.”

Ultimately, Logan settled into the school rhythm.

She willingly goes into the building now, but although her education plan says she should receive instruction in both an autistic support class and a second-grade class, she still can’t attend in-person instruction with her typical peers because of COVID-19 and the need to separate cohorts. (People with intellectual disabilities are at increased risk for contracting the virus.)

A month of in-person instruction hasn’t made a dent in Logan’s regression, Syrita said; she’s not sure if Logan is getting much out of it yet, she said.

But another potential obstacle has arisen.

Last Thursday, Syrita got word from Barry staff: Logan was resisting her mandatory weekly COVID-19 test. (It typically takes four adults to help her tolerate doctor’s appointments, Syrita said.) If she can’t be tested, she’ll have to stop attending in-person classes, they told her. They said they would keep trying, for now.

Syrita prides herself on being positive, even through the trials of the last year that have includedAaron’s layoff, falling victim to identity theft, and having the family’s van totaled by a hit-and-run driver.

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She’s trying to do better at self-care, using respite care from her parents to go on date nights with Aaron, even if it’s just a walk around the block or a drive somewhere.

With the weather warming, the family even managed to indulge in a rare getaway, a day in Atlantic City, walking on the beach and Boardwalk.

“We stay intact because we had to,” Syrita said.

She turned to her cheerful, charming oldest.

“Maddie, what are we grateful for?” Syrita asked.

“We’re grateful for all the things we can do,” she said. “We’re grateful for life.”