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Students rely on an array of services in special education classes.

JoAnna Van Brusselen’s 11-year-old daughter, Iolani, loves school and has been making great progress in her occupational and physical therapy. While living with cerebral palsy, hemiplegia, visual impairment and hydroencephalitis, she can walk. She can use her right hand, and she’s a whiz at reading and learning languages.

But now that her school, Leonard Flynn Elementary in San Francisco Unified, is closed for at least three weeks, Van Brusselen is worried her daughter will regress, losing the mobility and academic skills she had worked so hard to master.

“All the therapies she got at school, obviously, she’s not getting any of those now,” said Van Brusselen, who also has an 18-month-old daughter and works from home. “I’m doing the best I can, but it’s frustrating, because I know I can’t help her as much as her teachers and therapists can.”

As California K-12 schools closed this week to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, one group of students is particularly impacted by the loss of routine and specialized instruction: the nearly 800,000 public school students in special education programs.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond issued guidelines this week for how schools should address the needs of special education students. While the federal government has not waived the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that students with special needs receive the same high-quality education as non-disabled students, the federal Office of Special Education Programs is apparently allowing districts some flexibility.

That could mean using online instruction, meeting with teachers on the phone or through video conferencing, or other methods that aren’t necessarily part of a student’s individualized education program, a personalized education roadmap that all students in special education are required to have.

“(The office) recognizes that, given the unprecedented situation created by the threat of COVID-19, exceptional circumstances may affect how a particular service is provided under a student’s individualized education program,” according to the guidelines.

The California Department of Education plans to create an advisory group to create more specific recommendations for students in special education.

Disabled students typically receive an array of services at school to help them learn. That could include speech, occupational and physical therapy, assistance in regular classrooms, behavior therapy, devices to help them communicate and other services.

While teachers across the state are compiling independent study packets and online lessons for students in regular classes, special education teachers are looking for other ways to help their students — many of whom need individual, in-person attention — during the closure.

Some teachers are visiting students’ homes and advising families on physical therapy techniques, for example. Others are calling, texting and emailing parents to answer questions and stay in touch with students.

Yasmir Navas, who teaches special education to third- through fifth-graders at Sanchez Elementary in San Francisco, put together boxes of worksheets, crayons, glue, scissors, cut-out letters and a list of apps for parents, and distributed them to families the day school closed. She’s also been calling each family to check in.

She knows parents have other things to worry about now, such as loss of employment and taking care of their other children, but she tries to reassure them that they can still be good teachers for their children.

“I tell them it’s important to keep students busy, have a routine. And make sure you enjoy your time together,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a battle to get work done.”

She worries about her students regressing or suffering from the change in routine. Students with special needs, especially those with behavior or emotional issues, do much better when they know what to expect every day. Seeing adults around them anxious or panicked doesn’t help, Navas said.

“A lot of my students need the consistency of school, the routines,” she said. “To not have that, they can become dysregulated. I see it even after short school breaks. It’s like starting over.”

Families have another worry with the school closures, as well: infection. Some students with disabilities have medical issues, such as feeding or breathing tubes, which make them especially vulnerable to infections. Parents worry about exposing their children when school re-opens, and keeping everyone in the household free from illness.

Kathleen Mortier, assistant professor of special education at San Francisco State University, said schools need to ensure special education students have a smooth transition to learning from home.

“Students with special needs have a right, just like all the other kids, to continue learning and moving forward,” she said. “Principals and administrators need to remember that learning is equally important to all their students, whether they’re in regular ed or special ed.”

So far, schools’ response has been “kind of random,” she said. Some teachers are making home visits, while others have made no particular arrangements, she said. Ideally, schools would provide online resources or packets of education materials — in multiple languages — to help ease parents through the next few weeks.

Child care is also an issue for students whose parents must work. Finding child care for special education students can be very difficult even under the best circumstances, Mortier said. If possible, schools should help parents find child care for their children, she said.

Mike West, Colusa County superintendent of schools, said the five districts in his county are navigating these issues now.

“If we provide education plans for our students in general ed, we need to do it for our special ed students, too,” he said. “But how do you deliver high-quality special ed services at a time when we’re not supposed to be near each other?”

“It’s a tough situation. You feel like an island, like you’re the only ones trying to figure this out,” he said. “Knowing the rest of the country has the same problem doesn’t make it any easier.”

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  1. John 2 months ago2 months ago

    Just to piggyback on the first comment, this is the case for many educators, including those that are special education services providers like myself. I hear a lot of, "the school district has to be creative," coming from SPED advocates. This is just so frustrating to hear and just so completely tone deaf. The providers have been thrown into this situation as well! We do not have a monopoly on creative ideas. If you have … Read More

    Just to piggyback on the first comment, this is the case for many educators, including those that are special education services providers like myself. I hear a lot of, “the school district has to be creative,” coming from SPED advocates. This is just so frustrating to hear and just so completely tone deaf. The providers have been thrown into this situation as well!

    We do not have a monopoly on creative ideas. If you have them, please share them! There are so many confounding variables that are going to limit access to being provided these services in an effective way. I mean, it’s already difficult enough to provide them face to face, and now we aren’t even allowed on campus to access our instructional materials, files, electronic devices, progress notes.

    We are trying to wrap our heads around how to provide effective service, when we also have limited access. Meanwhile, we also have our children at home to care for, and yes we have special needs children at home as well. It’s all so frustrating.

  2. Jana 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you for addressing Special Education. All too often we are the orphaned stepchild. I work at an independent study personalized learning school. I am an Education Specialist/Resource Teacher working with 8-12 grade. Even with the experience of working in an independent study program, there are challenges. How do I meet the service minutes of students? What is really important? How do I do all this and continue to supervise the education of my high … Read More

    Thank you for addressing Special Education. All too often we are the orphaned stepchild. I work at an independent study personalized learning school. I am an Education Specialist/Resource Teacher working with 8-12 grade. Even with the experience of working in an independent study program, there are challenges. How do I meet the service minutes of students? What is really important? How do I do all this and continue to supervise the education of my high sophomore? How do I balance it all?

    I am very grateful for the staff I have the pleasure to work with. We are collaborating in ways we have never before had the opportunity to do, gen ed and sped. We all need to remember that learning is in the teachable moments. And life sure is full of those teachable moments.

  3. Ken 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a special education teacher, I am wrestling with this right now along with the ever-changing amount of time we are to be providing remote teaching to our students. What will this look like? When the students require 1:1 or small group instruction, behavioral needs, services, hands-on instruction, accommodations and modifications, and peer interaction, how do we provide this? How are assessments for services going to be done? What do we do? How can we … Read More

    As a special education teacher, I am wrestling with this right now along with the ever-changing amount of time we are to be providing remote teaching to our students. What will this look like? When the students require 1:1 or small group instruction, behavioral needs, services, hands-on instruction, accommodations and modifications, and peer interaction, how do we provide this? How are assessments for services going to be done? What do we do? How can we best serve these students given these challenges?

    How do the parents attempt to support this when they are working? How do they receive child care, as you pointed out? What sort of strain does this place on families? How will the student do when their routine has been upended? How will they fare when they return to school? How much regression will have occurred?

    I would really encourage everyone to reach out – as much as this is possible given the “shelter in place” in effect – and try to see if you can provide support for parents of children with special needs. Even if it is as basic as helping them to do their shopping or checking in on them or anything else, I am confident it would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Parent/educator 2 months ago2 months ago

    A lot has been said about schools continuing to provide educational and other services, and parents taking over homeschooling. Is anyone talking about the parents who work in education and are now having to homeschool their own children? I have a 6-year-old at home and am currently facing this challenge, but don’t see anyone talking about how to navigate this very challenging time as we transition to working from home with our children.