As pressure mounts for California schools to reopen for in-person instruction, special education teachers who have already been meeting with students in person describe the experience as a mix of fear, anxiety and occasional joy, with conditions changing at a moment’s notice.
The state does not track how many districts are open for in-person special education instruction, but some started offering in-person assessments and instruction in spring 2020, with more opening in the fall.
For teachers like Susan Cheramy-McNesby, a resource specialist in Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County, meeting with students in person has not gotten any easier as the months have gone by.
Two days a week, she puts on a mask, gloves and a cone-shaped plastic shield, and sits behind a Plexiglass barrier while she assesses how well children can spell, or speak, or count, for placement in special education classes. The classroom is equipped with air purifiers and hand sanitizer, and everyone gets their temperature taken at least once.
Still, she’s nervous. Several colleagues have contracted Covid-19, and one nearly died. Cheramy-McNesby is in her 60s and has a compromised immune system.
“I love my job, I really do, but this is really nerve-wracking,” said Cheramy-McNesby, who’s been a resource specialist for 23 years, teaching students with special needs and helping craft learning plans. “I’m being extra careful. I’m doing my best to stay healthy, for my grandchildren’s sake. But it’s scary.”
Special education has been a challenge for many districts during the pandemic because students in special education often receive services that are nearly impossible to provide virtually, such as physical or occupational therapy. Assessments, required for students entering special education, as well as those already enrolled, are also almost impossible to provide online.
When campuses first closed in March, school districts asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive some special education requirements, for fear districts couldn’t successfully provide them virtually and districts would be vulnerable to lawsuits from parents. DeVos declined, leading many districts to begin providing special education services in-person.
Marin County was among the first in California to start offering special education instruction in person, beginning in May. The county’s 30-point safety plan, created by the Marin County Department of Public Health and the County Office of Education, has been so successful that now 86% of the county’s schools, including charter schools and private schools, are open for in-person classes for almost all students, said County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke.
Support from the teachers’ unions, classified staff and parents has been key to the plan’s success, Burke said.
“They gave us their input every step of the way,” she said. “Overall, it’s going really well, but it’s been critical to have very close contact with all stakeholders, right from the onset.”
Since August, when most schools opened, the rate of coronavirus transmission has been very low, according to the Marin County Public Health Department. The county has recorded only seven cases of Covid that authorities believe can be traced to schools, and no hospitalizations. In fact, the county’s overall Covid rate has dropped since schools reopened.
Conditions have not been as smooth in other parts of the state. In Kern County, for example, special education classes have alternated between in-person and virtual instruction several times due to local spikes in the Covid rate.
Maren and Tracy Kelly, a married couple who live in Tehachapi, southeast of Bakersfield, are both special education teachers who say it was wonderful to see their students again, but the experience has left them conflicted and unsettled.
“The back-and-forth was hard for me, hard for my students,” Maren Kelly said. “All the fluctuation was detrimental. There was too much chaos.”
And as much as she loves her students, seeing them in person — with all the safety protocols that entailed — was nerve-wracking. Students often took off their masks, or forgot the social-distance rules. Some of Tracy Kelly’s students have more severe disabilities and need help with personal care, which cannot be done from 6 feet away.
Sometimes, students came to school with sniffles or other minor cold symptoms, prompting a disruptive quarantine protocol until the student tested negative for Covid.
Maren Kelly said she felt like she spent half her day reminding students to wear masks, wash their hands and stay 6 feet apart.
“If I had a choice, I would not have gone back,” she said. “Not because I don’t want to see my students. I love my job, but I was worried about my own health.”
Her husband, who’s on the Tehachapi Unified school board and teaches in Antelope Valley in eastern Los Angeles County, said he wasn’t as worried when he taught in-person, and as a board member would support schools reopening as long as teachers had adequate protection.
“It took a little getting used to, but after three days, I felt we had it down. It just seemed normal,” he said. “If teachers have enough safety protocols, it seems worth the risk.”
In Twin Rivers Unified, northeast of Sacramento, resource specialist Jessica Hilderbrand has been assessing elementary students in-person two days a week. Of the 27 students she regularly works with, four have recently been exposed to Covid.
One day, she was assessing a kindergartner who wouldn’t wear his mask and was continually putting his hands in his mouth, reaching under the Plexiglass barrier and running around the room. She was so unnerved she got tested for Covid that afternoon.
“I couldn’t be mad at him — he’s 5 years old,” she said. “He was cute as can be, but it was off the hook. … I appreciate all the safety measures the district’s provided, but these are crazy working conditions.”
Still, she worries about her students who are not doing well with distance learning or have vanished from school altogether. She worries about their mental health, and how far behind they’re falling academically.
“The learning loss is real, especially for students in special ed,” she said. “But what’s the trade off? I don’t know. It’s tough.”
Thomas Green, head lecturer in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education’s Principal Leadership Institute, said special education teachers he has worked with are reporting high levels of anxiety during the pandemic.
They’re facing the same challenges that existed before campus closures, including chronic staffing shortages and a dearth of resources, but now they’re being asked to risk their health. Meanwhile, their students, in many cases, are floundering.
“It’s stressful work under the best of circumstances, but this is an entirely new level of stress,” Green said. “And everything is in flux. What’s true today could be totally different next week. … It’s an impossible choice.”
Cheramy-McNesby said that despite her health concerns, she feels the assessments are going well. And she loves seeing her students in-person, watching them make friends and have fun and learn new skills.
“I think we’ll all feel a lot more comfortable once more people get the vaccine,” she said. “But if any safety plans depend on students wearing masks, wow. There’s no way.”