A week after state and federal authorities directed school districts to continue offering special education during school closures, the level and quality of those services remains a patchwork in California.
In some districts, teachers are talking daily to students and their families, assigning homework and holding online classes. But in other districts, special education so far has been minimal or put on hold.
“Anecdotally speaking, this is something districts are really struggling with right now, and they could use more guidance from the state about how to best serve students,” said Heather Hough, executive director of Policy Analysis of California Education, an independent research center.
The California Department of Education is hosting a webinar on Thursday to help districts set up online learning for students with disabilities. And last week, both the state and federal education departments issued guidelines for special education during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the results so far have varied even among teachers at the same school. Some districts, such as Riverside Unified, Corona-Norco Unified and San Diego Unified, have delayed special education plans due to spring break and the need to train teachers in online education, while others began as soon as schools closed in mid-March.
“I can tell you, it is all over the map,” said Nica Cotroneo Cox, president of the California Association of Resource and Special Educators, a professional group. “It’s been very frustrating for teachers. They don’t have a clear, concise message for what they’re supposed to do.”
That’s led to confusion from some families, who feel their children are not receiving the same educational services as students in general education and are in danger of regressing.
Nashatrica McNeal has three children and a niece who receive special education services in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, north of Los Angeles. The district, which closed campuses March 20, is not scheduled to re-open until May 5 but teachers have been directed to start providing online lessons by April 2. Since the closure was announced, McNeal said her children and niece have not received any assignments or resources.
McNeal worries about them falling behind. They rely on special education services for attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and mental illness, she said, and struggle with reading and math.
“I believe they’re missing out,” McNeal said, noting that coordinating services could be a challenge even before the schools closed. “They’re worried about falling behind, not getting promoted to the next grade. They’re worried about their grades. What’s going to happen to their education? We’ll figure it out, but right now it’s hard.”
By contrast, Debra Leschyn, a special education teacher in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, has already started teaching online. She’s contacted families, set up assignments, taken a class on how to teach via Zoom and ensured her students received Chromebook computers from the district.
But even under those circumstances, the process has been imperfect, she said. Only about half her students logged in for her first class. Some may have been busy helping with their younger siblings, or working, or having trouble with the technology, she said.
Another issue might be motivation. Her district froze grades when schools closed, allowing students to improve their grades by doing well online but barring teachers from lowering grades for students who don’t.
“So if you’re already getting an A, what’s the point of showing up at all?” she said. “All kids are at risk of losing skills during this period, but kids who are under-resourced and have special needs are most at risk. … You can’t really talk about online learning without talking about equity.”
Paperwork has been the primary challenge for Jana Kirk-Levine, a special education teacher at an independent charter school in Eureka. Although her students have been adapting well to online learning, the bureaucratic side has been exceedingly difficult, she said.
Switching to online education has meant she’s had to update each student’s Independent Learning Program, coordinating with families to make sure teachers and parents agree.
“That part has been a real pain in the neck. It’s taking away time I could be connecting with families and figuring out ways to be creative about this,” she said. “Right now, I feel like the priority should be to check on everyone, see if they’re doing OK, if they have everything they need. We need a little flexibility right now.”
For some districts, online learning has focused more on the parents than the students, at least initially. Because teachers are no longer able to provide in-person, one-on-one services such as occupational and physical therapy, parents need to learn those skills to help their children progress.
At the Orange County Department of Education, which serves approximately 400 moderately and severely disabled students, teachers have been working directly with families through video, email, text and phone calls. They’ve also created a video for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, with teachers singing in sign language to their students and a video showing that online classes can be upbeat, welcoming and personal.
“We’re in the very beginning stages, but it’s important to make sure our families are getting the level of support they need,” said Analee Kredel, the office’s chief of special education services. “A lot of our students have very specialized needs, and ordinarily we’d have multiple staff in the classroom assisting them. … I think our families have been appreciative.”
In other parts of the state, some special education teachers have started visiting students’ homes, standing in the street due to social-distancing protocols, Cox said. While students may be doing well with online lessons, they might miss the personal connections they have with teachers, she said.
“It’s absolutely possible to have decent online learning for students in special education,” she said. “Most of these kids are brilliant — they have no trouble doing the work. But it shouldn’t be the only delivery method. They need the social-emotional component, too.”
Jessica Hilderbrand is a resource specialist in the Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento, which has not yet launched online classes for students in special education. As much as she misses her students, Hilderbrand has not contacted them and is awaiting further direction from her school, district and teachers’ union.
She’s not sure how many of her students have computers, for starters, or how she’d work with her students who are in general education classes.
“I have some concerns about equity, about how we’re going to reach all our students. A huge number of them come from families facing a lot of adversity right now,” she said. “But I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’ll be excited when something’s finally in place.”