California students enrolled in special education face unique burdens during school closure

March 19, 2020

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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