Photo: Cindy Evans
Students in a special day class at San Jose Middle School in Novato in Marin Countyl have returned to school and are practicing social distancing

While educators across the state are struggling over how and when to bring students safely back to school in the fall,  teachers in at least one California classroom have already figured it out. 

At San Jose Middle School, located in Novato in Marin County, Cindy Evans’ class for special education students has been in session for ten days.  Educators interviewed by EdSource say they know of no other similar effort in the state.

The students in the classroom, which is overseen by the Marin County Office of Education rather than a single district, come from throughout the county. As of now, five students are in school for a regular full day of instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., while three of their classmates join in via distance learning.

It is a hardly a typical class. There are four adults in the classroom: a teacher and three full-time teacher assistants, known as paraprofessionals.

The classroom provides clues to how special ed classes might work this fall for students with the most severe disabilities. If the experience of this classroom is any guide, it suggests that social distancing is possible — but not without a great deal of effort and adult oversight.

The classroom experiment, done in close consultation with local health authorities, was triggered by the difficulties that many special ed students have had in adapting to distance learning during the pandemic.  A survey of parents of special ed students in the county showed that over 90 percent were ready for their children to come back to school.  

“The bottom line is the knowledge that what we have been providing hasn’t been working,” said Mary Jane Burke, Marin County’s superintendent of schools.

Cindy Evans said her students’ disabilities vary greatly.  Two are autistic, another has Down Syndrome. “I have everybody in my classroom.”  Now in her 15th year as a teacher, she has not lost her enthusiasm for the profession despite taking on one of the most challenging classroom assignments.  “I feel so blessed,” she said. “I love my students.”

When students arrive each morning, they go to a table outside the school entrance where their temperature is taken by a heat sensing thermometer. Parents are also asked a handful of questions — about whether anyone in their families has had a cough, fever or been diagnosed with the coronavirus in the previous two weeks, or experienced vomiting, diarrhea or other similar ailments in the last 24 hours.

Backpacks are wiped with disinfectants at the beginning of the day. Evans said they are “constantly” using hand sanitizer and wipes, and students’ temperatures are taken again during the day.

In the classroom students desks have been placed at least six feet apart. All but one of the students wear masks.  But with so many adults in the classroom, students’ movements can be monitored and they can be mostly kept apart from other students.

“It’s been running so much more smoothly than I thought it would,” Evans said.

For Laurie Carvajal, being able to bring her daughter Caroline back to school could not have come soon enough. Carvajal has three other children who are in seventh, ninth and 10th grade. Eleven year old Caroline, who is nonverbal, has a chromosomal abnormality that has resulted in significant developmental delays. For her, distance learning was a disaster. At the best of times, her mother says, Caroline showed no interest in television, or material delivered online or via Zoom. That hasn’t changed during the pandemic.

“She went two months with only having me as a teacher, and I felt I was failing,” she said. “I tried everything to make it work, I was tearing my hair out, it was so stressful. I was worried that she would go for six months without any true learning opportunities.”

That’s why the program at San Jose Middle School has been so transformative. “It is such a relief that she is getting her education in,” she said. “It was terrible when the entire burden was on me to do it.”

What makes going back to school possible is that Caroline has the support of a fulltime assistant in the classroom who monitors her throughout the school day, as she has during the school year.

Caroline is probably at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, Carvajal acknowledges. “She likes to touch things, and she likes to touch her mouth, so she is a prime target (for the virus),” she said. In addition, it is impossible for her to wear a mask because she simply removes it.

The school also doesn’t serve meals (she brings her own lunch), and instead of a regular recess, students just walk around the school. ”So being in close proximity to other kids is not really a problem,” Carvajal said. “My comfort level comes from knowing that they are taking precautions, and that she has someone standing next to her all the time, making sure she is not exposed to anything and the kids are kept far apart enough.”

Marc McCauley said his 13-year-old son Willie, who has been diagnosed with what is referred to as an “autism spectrum disorder,” actually did fine with remote instruction but returning to his school was so much better.

McCauley says he worried unnecessarily that changes in the school environment his son had gotten used to, like going to school by bus and eating in the cafeteria, might be a problem. “He really seems to enjoy being back,” he said.

“Yeah, I enjoy being back in Cindy’s class,” Willie interjected in the background while his father was being interviewed for this article.

The county has another pilot program underway about 15 minutes away at the Marin Community School in San Rafael. It serves just over 50 middle and high school students who have a range of behavioral problems that have made attending regular schools difficult, if not impossible. Since last week, each day a different group of about 10 students comes to the school for four hours of in-person classes. It too has a very high student to adult ratio, with a teacher and a full time “learning coach” overseeing each class.

Co-principal Katy Foster says the effort to get students back to class for even just a day was based on the school’s guiding philosophy that teachers’ relationships with students are the key to their success.

The Marin County experience suggests that it is possible to provide in-person instruction to some of the most challenging students in special education classes. Whether it is generalizable to the general population is another question. Carvajal doubts that it is. “We drop students off in a small parking lot, with parents providing transportation,” she said. “I stand with her until it is her turn to check in.” And she notes that just a few students are taught in a classroom the same size as her son’s seventh grade class in another school, which holds 27 students.

County superintendent Burke said that the experience underscores the fact that serving special education students “will require a great deal of individualization and different models.”

“These are kids that the system has not been able to engage,” she said. “We hold the belief that the miracle-making process of school is interaction with kids. That is where you see the magic.”

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  1. Heather 4 months ago4 months ago

    As a special education teacher for students with moderate to severe disabilities, I feel we are being taken advantage of once again. We love our students but it will be impossible to maintain social distancing in my class. I will not be sending my own children to school until I see better numbers, treatments, and a large enough sample study to prove that kids are not transmitting the virus. I am doing this mostly … Read More

    As a special education teacher for students with moderate to severe disabilities, I feel we are being taken advantage of once again. We love our students but it will be impossible to maintain social distancing in my class. I will not be sending my own children to school until I see better numbers, treatments, and a large enough sample study to prove that kids are not transmitting the virus. I am doing this mostly out of respect for their teachers. I hope the parents of my students feel the same and keep their children at home.

  2. Phyllis Y. Spivey 6 months ago6 months ago

    My school has the space and staff to implement this class setup. Distance learning is not working for most of my students. They need to be in a classroom with a teacher.

  3. v 6 months ago6 months ago

    I would like an update on how this class is doing.

  4. Lauren 6 months ago6 months ago

    Use Person-First Language! It is disrespectful to say "Two are autistic, another has Down Syndrome." You should have said 'two students have autism and another has Down Syndrome' as it is part of who they are not their whole being. Similarly, the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is how to refer to people with autism or similar disability under that umbrella. It is odd that you refer to ASD in quotes ("Marc McCauley said his 13-year-old … Read More

    Use Person-First Language! It is disrespectful to say “Two are autistic, another has Down Syndrome.” You should have said ‘two students have autism and another has Down Syndrome’ as it is part of who they are not their whole being. Similarly, the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is how to refer to people with autism or similar disability under that umbrella. It is odd that you refer to ASD in quotes (“Marc McCauley said his 13-year-old son Willie, who has been diagnosed with what is referred to as an “autism spectrum disorder,” actually did fine with remote instruction but returning to his school was so much better”).

  5. Mrs.Jag 6 months ago6 months ago

    I am concerned about this because I am a self contained special education teacher and I have no help. I have 19 students and 6 with autism. I don't have a para to help me at all. This class of 5 has a ton of help. It wouldn't work for me in my classroom to do what they do when I can't get help at all during the "normal" school year. I don't see our … Read More

    I am concerned about this because I am a self contained special education teacher and I have no help. I have 19 students and 6 with autism. I don’t have a para to help me at all. This class of 5 has a ton of help. It wouldn’t work for me in my classroom to do what they do when I can’t get help at all during the “normal” school year. I don’t see our district taking the precautions for this one either.

  6. Melanie Jones 6 months ago6 months ago

    Teachers cannot wear face coverings while teaching; students would not hear and understand anything said! I can see if a teacher helps one on one, what about students who have hard time hearing and now would not be able to watch expression and tone? This is only going to cause tremendous stress.

  7. LG 6 months ago6 months ago

    How would this be possible with 10 students, one teacher one paraprofessional and two students with brain injuries? More than half of the class is physically aggressive, impulsive and walk out without permission. Please show me how this would work?

  8. Ms Rob 6 months ago6 months ago

    I liked that they are trying. I am an Exceptional ed teacher in a self-contained classroom with 22 years experience. I'm the one that gets the kids that can't function in regular ed due to impact if severe behavior or physical disabilities, high medical needs (which we cannot really educate, just feed and diaper, suction, etc), severe autism, nonverbal and you name it. I will admit that I am scared if how we are … Read More

    I liked that they are trying. I am an Exceptional ed teacher in a self-contained classroom with 22 years experience. I’m the one that gets the kids that can’t function in regular ed due to impact if severe behavior or physical disabilities, high medical needs (which we cannot really educate, just feed and diaper, suction, etc), severe autism, nonverbal and you name it.

    I will admit that I am scared if how we are going to handle this in my room. I have kids that won’t even keep clothing on, much less a mask. They won’t sit at a desk for learning much less social distance. Some spit on things, us, other kids. Bite, scratch, constantly becoming sick. Rarely, if ever, do miss 1 day.

    These are big kids some of whom require up to 6 diaper changes each daily. Or some who defecate to avoid the potty training. My TAs and I stayed sick with stomach bugs, bronchitis, pneumonia, staph, strep etc. prior to COVID-19. When we return, we will have an epidemic within my classroom or be forced to constantly test, quarantine ourselves from our jobs (which no subs will show up for btw) and our families.

    We only get 7 paid sick days per year. The district makes us pay $200 daily for subs after that. Sure the online teaching was terrible for half of my kids. The ones who wouldn’t sit still to learn at school anyway!

    Do you know how they did actually learn? I made instructional Flipgrid videos tailored to each level of disability. They got more from that ever before. Bottom line, I had enough documentation and about 9 different ways to teach during distance learning. I wasn’t sick once for the very 1st time in years of being in that type of classroom.

    The main thing I heard from parents were these 2 statements: 1. I won’t be sending my child back and risking them ending up in the hospital in the fall just to get a break from them. 2. I don’t know how you handle them. I’m going insane. When is school opening? I can’t do anything with them. I am sorry for not believing you when you told me they were spitting, kicking, biting, eloping as task avoidance, refusing to wear clothes, etc.

    You can read into that what though want but it is true. Three parents aren’t concerned, most of them, about teacher safety or that if other kids. I’m a cancer survivor. I don’t want to die from a preventable illness.

    Replies

    • Ms. Bri 6 months ago6 months ago

      Hi Ms. Rob. I have the same concerns. I get frustrated when I hear things like "Interaction with kids is where you see the magic." Yes. 100%. I agree. But we are in the middle of a pandemic. This is an extreme, and unprecedented worldwide crisis. I miss my kids terribly and no, my students do not benefit from Google Classroom. I get concerned when we are making decisions based on levels of … Read More

      Hi Ms. Rob. I have the same concerns. I get frustrated when I hear things like “Interaction with kids is where you see the magic.” Yes. 100%. I agree. But we are in the middle of a pandemic. This is an extreme, and unprecedented worldwide crisis. I miss my kids terribly and no, my students do not benefit from Google Classroom. I get concerned when we are making decisions based on levels of risk. I personally do not want to be responsible for giving COVID to one of my students and do not feel that I should be at risk of getting it either.

      Good luck to everyone! I know we all want to do what is best for our kiddos.

  9. Dr. M. 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thanks you for addressing one part of the world of special education classrooms. This may be appropriate for students with mild to moderate needs but as you go further down the intensity of developmental need, behavior, or physical/medical challenges, this becomes more challenging. The most challenging component of the school day will be transportation. All students must have access to the learning environment and not just those with parents able to drive them to the school entrance.

  10. Maureen Mark 6 months ago6 months ago

    I appreciated the story, but I feel that there is an opportunity for education with regard to proper identification of the students. They are “students with special needs,” not “special ed students.” That is not politically correct in this day and age. Just thought I’d take a moment to offer a little insight!

  11. Karen 6 months ago6 months ago

    Kindly, put the person first. In other words, students receiving special education. Students are people first. Thank you

  12. K Simmons 6 months ago6 months ago

    So you put students at risk and staff when there is a syndrome that is specifically attacking kids. How does a non verbal student keep a mask on or a student who has multiple needs who does not understand social distancing and why there are so few in their classroom. The health risks far outreach the students returning in person until there is a vaccine. One child getting the virus is too many. Every person … Read More

    So you put students at risk and staff when there is a syndrome that is specifically attacking kids. How does a non verbal student keep a mask on or a student who has multiple needs who does not understand social distancing and why there are so few in their classroom.

    The health risks far outreach the students returning in person until there is a vaccine. One child getting the virus is too many. Every person coming into a school building is exposed to other people and we know schools are factories of germs. Is there extensive cleaning going on everyday?

  13. Annoymus 6 months ago6 months ago

    Not all special education students have to return to school. Some are very smart and can do online school. What people don’t understand is special ed students are much smarter.

  14. Anonymous 6 months ago6 months ago

    How interesting that this school is located in an affluent area. Yes, all children deserve to be in a more appropriate learning environment, such as a classroom. It is great to read this article. Unfortunately, it highlights the economic disparities that exist between the rich and the poor.

    Replies

    • phyllis 6 months ago6 months ago

      What you do not understand is the children come from all over Marin County. This is a public school. It has nothing to do with income or social status. Not all of Marin County is wealthy. I’m surprised at the negative comments posted. If you have a special needs child, you would understand that consistency is so important. And a teacher that recognizes her students to be gifted in their own way.

  15. Deb Pegram OTRL 6 months ago6 months ago

    I think this looks like a well thought out approach.It would also work to have the related services folks as extra adults in the classroom setting.

  16. Nicole 6 months ago6 months ago

    This story is wonderful; however, will the district really put so many staff in one classroom? Absolutely not because it would have already been taking place before the pandemic. I work with special education students and some of the children can be very challenging making this setup very High Risk. Last question, will the pay increase and the insurance become affordable for working in this High Risk environment of contracting the virus? Most paraeducators have … Read More

    This story is wonderful; however, will the district really put so many staff in one classroom? Absolutely not because it would have already been taking place before the pandemic. I work with special education students and some of the children can be very challenging making this setup very High Risk.

    Last question, will the pay increase and the insurance become affordable for working in this High Risk environment of contracting the virus? Most paraeducators have second jobs just to make it!! Hats off to the parents that gave it their best but hopefully now parents will have a better understanding of what educational staff go through and be a lot more appreciative and cooperative.

  17. Karen Deadrick 6 months ago6 months ago

    I am glad you are back in school but please have those children take off the masks and let them be kids. All these CDC guidelines break my heart.

  18. el 6 months ago6 months ago

    I really appreciate your reporting on this effort and the information on the strategies MCOE is using. I worry a lot about these kids - they are more fragile medically, but yes, they desperately need the in-person services. And their families very much need to have the help and the respite of another capable adult who knows the needs of their student so well. A child with special needs often cannot be placed with just … Read More

    I really appreciate your reporting on this effort and the information on the strategies MCOE is using. I worry a lot about these kids – they are more fragile medically, but yes, they desperately need the in-person services. And their families very much need to have the help and the respite of another capable adult who knows the needs of their student so well. A child with special needs often cannot be placed with just any caregiver, and especially not for their schooling.

    Because of the already small class sizes and high staff-to-student ratio, this seems like it can be done relatively safely and carefully. I am sure that all of students, staff, and parents are happy to be able to get back to a routine and I hope the news remains good.

  19. Leon C. Intrater 6 months ago6 months ago

    ...glad to see students back in the classroom. And glad to read an article that tells the truth about how ineffective "remote learning" really is...if it can be considered "learning" at all. Read More

    …glad to see students back in the classroom. And glad to read an article that tells the truth about how ineffective “remote learning” really is…if it can be considered “learning” at all.

  20. Mary McGuire 6 months ago6 months ago

    I like this idea, and hope to hear about the results of the program in a month or two. Two questions: Why is the issue of the virus hanging in the air not addressed, as the CDC has made it clear that surface cleaning is only one step of the two critical to stop the spread of this virus. Secondly, the teachers who have taught 15 years are usually in an age category … Read More

    I like this idea, and hope to hear about the results of the program in a month or two. Two questions: Why is the issue of the virus hanging in the air not addressed, as the CDC has made it clear that surface cleaning is only one step of the two critical to stop the spread of this virus.

    Secondly, the teachers who have taught 15 years are usually in an age category of much less likely to die of the virus, but much more likely, currently in Washington, to be newly found positive in testing. 80 teachers died in NY City schools — that we know of, and countless carried the virus to their own families. Please address the science and public safety in future articles about education.

  21. Heather 6 months ago6 months ago

    Why must the title say “special ed” students? A better title might be ” . . . these students with special needs . . . “

  22. Vanessa Millet 6 months ago6 months ago

    So, the educator who no one seems to be taking into account here, is sitting for hours in a room with the possibility of contracting a virus that we know is airborne to some degree for extended periods. The windows seem to even be closed in this photo, limiting ventilation which might reduce virulence if someone is indeed infected. This educator is now putting her/his self at risk. I feel this fact has not been … Read More

    So, the educator who no one seems to be taking into account here, is sitting for hours in a room with the possibility of contracting a virus that we know is airborne to some degree for extended periods. The windows seem to even be closed in this photo, limiting ventilation which might reduce virulence if someone is indeed infected.

    This educator is now putting her/his self at risk. I feel this fact has not been heavily considered when these articles and conversations spill across the Internet. I hope the educator is aware of and consents to the inherent risks. Teachers have families, too. (I am not a teacher but know many of them.)

    Replies

    • Linda B 6 months ago6 months ago

      Thank you. It's hard for us paraprofessional too who spend a lot of time and energy with these students. We have families as well. A lot of our children are constantly touching their mouth, nose, and various other parts of there bodies often. Also, they are sent to school with bad colds, coughs and not feeling well. I love my children as well, but I have a family and myself to look out for … Read More

      Thank you. It’s hard for us paraprofessional too who spend a lot of time and energy with these students. We have families as well. A lot of our children are constantly touching their mouth, nose, and various other parts of there bodies often.

      Also, they are sent to school with bad colds, coughs and not feeling well. I love my children as well, but I have a family and myself to look out for as well. So I’m praying CDC looks out as well for staff.

  23. stephaniew tellas 6 months ago6 months ago

    Kids need social interaction with other kids. Before all this happened teachers/assistants had kids wash their hands in the morning and throughout the day. The teachers/assistants would also help sanitize desks, etc.

    Replies

    • Anonymous 6 months ago6 months ago

      Don’t force them to socialize

  24. Shayira Diaz 6 months ago6 months ago

    That’s exactly what we need here, in Rhode Island. We need our special needs kids return to the school, with the necessary precautions, of course. We only see stores opened, restaurants, beauty salons….but what about schools?
    Thanks for sharing this.

  25. JL 6 months ago6 months ago

    I am a Special Education teacher. I enjoyed this article and its glimpse into what a school day could look like in the Fall. However, what I did not enjoy is how many times you used “special education students”. You write for a living so you should be more then well aware of people first language….”students with disabilities”. Please use it next time.

  26. Shana L Benton 6 months ago6 months ago

    This is great! All Special Education students need to be back in our classrooms. They can't get what they need doing online schooling. Most Sp Ed students have multiple needs and require one on one consistent assistance. I'm a Paraeducator and know how these classes run. We staff assist our Sp Ed students all day long. These students also have services beyond just the classroom settings that aren't being met while they are in lockdown … Read More

    This is great! All Special Education students need to be back in our classrooms. They can’t get what they need doing online schooling.

    Most Sp Ed students have multiple needs and require one on one consistent assistance. I’m a Paraeducator and know how these classes run. We staff assist our Sp Ed students all day long. These students also have services beyond just the classroom settings that aren’t being met while they are in lockdown at home. PT, OT, and Speech therapy can’t be done effectively through online/zoom or Google classroom. Being in a classroom and staying on schedules is key for them.

    Also, a lot of autistic students have behaviors that cause them to self-harm and harm others. This gets intensified when there isn’t any consistent structure in their day. I fear the amount of mental and physical pain these children and their parents are going through with this lockdown. Most of these parents rely on our help and trust what we do with their children. The students rely on us as well.

    My question is what ever happened to their HIPPA rights? Their rights to a least restrictive environment! Them being at home is a restive environment. I have been at both Huntington Beach Rallies supporting my students and us staff. I will continue to do whatever I can to get us all back in our classrooms.

    Newsom is a crazy and evil man. His hidden agenda with this Covid scare tactic is wrong and needs to stop! We educators aren’t afraid of Covid. We are afraid of the irreversible effects this is going to have on our students. Please keep talking and writing about our Sp Ed classrooms and the need for our students to come back on campus. My heart goes out to all the parents that are struggling with this right now.

    Replies

    • Lia J. 6 months ago6 months ago

      As a veteran teacher with over 23 years experience, I can empathize with your overwhelming concerns for your students' education and wellbeing. Your tenacity is to be commended. Please note, that there are several educators who serve in districts hit hard by this pandemic. Yes, we are afraid of this virus. We are afraid for ourselves, our students, and our families. My school district has lost approximately 10 to 15 staff so … Read More

      As a veteran teacher with over 23 years experience, I can empathize with your overwhelming concerns for your students’ education and wellbeing. Your tenacity is to be commended. Please note, that there are several educators who serve in districts hit hard by this pandemic. Yes, we are afraid of this virus. We are afraid for ourselves, our students, and our families. My school district has lost approximately 10 to 15 staff so far. So please take note my district is not taking this lightly. Unlike many other school systems in other parts of the country, we know how devastating this virus can be. My apologies for being a Debbie Downer, but it’s not just about education. It can be life or death for some.

    • Elizabeth 6 months ago6 months ago

      You only speak for yourself. There are plenty of us in special ed who have medical issues and/or medically fragile family members who are not ready to die over this. And no, this is not some conspiracy.