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Going the distance for special education

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the challenges of educating students with special needs

Going the distance for special education

Distance learning for a special needs child. (Caitlin Hanney)

In January, when Loren first told her students about an unknown virus that was infecting thousands of people in China, her students stared at her. That sounded bizarre and otherworldly to them—an invisible body that attacks and kills people in Asia? What did that have to do with them? They had a hard time comprehending it, and not just because all of Loren’s students have moderate to severe autism. Most Americans, including Loren herself, didn’t yet take COVID-19 very seriously at the time.

So on March 13, when the Los Angeles Unified school board decided to shut down all 900 campuses due to the coronavirus outbreak, Loren, a special education teacher in LA, was as shocked as her students. (Loren asked WORLD to use only her first name to protect her and her students’ privacy.) All she knew was that the previous day, during a staff meeting, her principal had told all teachers to prepare two weeks of assignments for their students the following day. 

The next morning, Loren was in school at 6 a.m., printing out two weeks’ worth of coursework for her seven students. Then that day, all LAUSD staff and employees received a mass email informing them that schools would close for two weeks. To keep the students calm, Loren waited until the last 15 minutes of class to play a short kid-friendly video on the coronavirus pandemic. She then broke the news to her kids: “On Monday, you won’t be coming back to school.” 

“That threw them off,” Loren recalled. “They didn’t really understand what was happening.” Most children with autism need and expect structure and routine. They couldn’t make sense of the idea of suddenly not coming to school when it wasn’t a holiday—and neither could Loren: How was she going to teach her students now?

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced almost every school in the nation to shut down, educators and parents are scrambling to figure out how to continue delivering educational opportunities to students in accordance with social distancing requirements. For most K-12 students, distance learning will suffice. But for kids with special needs, trying to get them to engage in a virtual classroom is nearly impossible. About 70,000 of LAUSD students are in special education, and nationwide, about 6.9 million students received special education services in 2017-18. Each student’s circumstances are unique, and each has an individualized education plan (IEP). How do teachers come up with a standardized online curriculum overnight that meets each of these student’s IEP goals?

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools must provide equal educational resources to students with disabilities.

That’s a dilemma that school officials have yet to figure out. Yet according to federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools must provide equal educational resources to students with disabilities. If not, school districts might lose much-needed federal funding, and the federal government has not waived IDEA requirements during the coronavirus shutdown. To avoid such repercussions, some school districts have gone so far as to halt educational services for all students until they can strategize new distance learning plans.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that California public schools will stay closed for the rest of the school year. LAUSD, after originally planning for a two-week closure, is closed indefinitely. “The public health crisis created by the coronavirus is not something any of us could’ve reasonably expected to happen, and we are in uncharted waters as we work to prevent the spread of the illness,” said LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner. 

The California Department of Education has encouraged schools to “do their best in adhering to IDEA requirements ... to the maximum extent possible” by using distance technology. But what that looks like is unclear, Loren said: “It’s like the blind leading the blind. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody’s able to help.” 

For example, Loren has a student who used to fly into tantrums at the slightest trigger—throwing pencils, flipping desks, hitting other students. It took months for her to teach him how to control his impulses. He still throws tantrums, but they’ve become less frequent and briefer: He lets out a shriek for two seconds, and then it’s over.

“That’s a lot of progress,” Loren said. But now that her students don’t have the regimented structure of a physical classroom anymore, Loren fears all her students will regress. She estimates that without the constant, physical supervision of an adult, her students are unable to perform 90 percent of their regular schoolwork: “I have a feeling next year will be playing a lot of catch up, re-teaching skills they’ve already learned. Realistically, I think they’re all going to take a big step backwards.” 

LAUSD and Verizon are teaming up to provide Wi-Fi service to poor students who didn’t have it (five of Loren’s students didn’t). But many parents of special education students work full-time, have other children to look after, or are non-English speakers, so parental involvement (which is essential for many special education activities) is another challenge. Loren has tried calling all her students’ parents, but not all have called her back. She has tried emailing them, but some email addresses don’t seem to be the right ones. 

Many students with disabilities also receive additional services such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and counseling. Most of those services are now gone. Serena Au, an occupational therapist in Orange County, said seven of the nine support staffers working in a special education classroom (including a behavioral assistant, a speech therapist, instructional aides, and nurses) have lost their jobs because they were hourly employees. Au is one of the two who kept her job, but she’s still trying to figure out how to best deliver her services to students. 

Au works mostly with children with severe disabilities. Many of them have cognitive disabilities that make it difficult for them to stay attentive for more than 15 minutes. One student cannot move any part of his body except to tilt his neck and blink his eyes. Some kids only know a few basic words such as “hi” and “bye.” Most of Au’s time is spent kneeling beside these children, trying to place a tennis ball into a rigid curled fist, or guiding them on how to place one hand on a piece of paper and use the other hand to grasp a pair of scissors to cut a straight line, or pointing constantly to where she wants their attention to be. But now, Au said, “my life is pretty much all Zoom meetings.” 

Like Loren, Au is having trouble reaching many of the parents. Out of her 60 students, about one-third of their parents have been completely unresponsive. Many of these students’ parents speak only Spanish, but Au doesn’t speak Spanish, and her district has only two Spanish-speaking interpreters. 

For the first time as a school occupational therapist, Au got a glimpse into the home lives of her students. One mother hopped onto Zoom with her while busy working at a laundromat. Some parents were obviously well-to-do based on what Au could see through Zoom—they had a big private room, nice furnishings, and plenty of entertainment for their kids. Other parents live in cramped studios or one-bedroom apartments, and she could hear kids crying or see other family members moving in the background.

Au estimates that she won’t be able to provide any direct occupational therapy services until mid-April. In the meantime, she’s trying to be positive and creative for her students. This week, she’s teaching them to do complex hand motions while singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider”—putting thumb to finger, finger to thumb, up and up, and down came the rain with jazz hands moving down. She’s also planning to send parents a weekly activity they can practice with their children, such as using squeeze bottles, picking up flowers, or baking cookies. But again—that’s all dependent on the parents’ availability and capability. 

In the meantime, school officials, teachers, and therapists are simply “doing the best we can given the situation,” said Deborah Green, a special education teacher at a public charter school in Dallas, where schools are also closed indefinitely. All six of Green’s students (from eighth grade to 12th grade) have access to the internet and Chromebooks. Currently, Green is using Google Classroom to post daily assignments for her class, which includes a 30-40-minute YouTube video, a 10-minute news segment for kids, and some online coursework. 

Green said only two of her students have been able to complete all of their assignments. She set up online office hours so her students can communicate with her via Zoom, but no one has done so yet. She tried making these office hour meetings mandatory, but again, nobody logged in. So she created a screen-capture video, in which she recorded a video of herself talking to the kids just as she would in class. She talked about Charlie, her new foster dog, and showed off her new haircut, which she did to donate hair to Children with Hair Loss.

“This is definitely not the best-case scenario,” Green said: “It’s frustrating. But at the same time, I think just working in special education, you’re used to your schedule never looking the way you planned it out. So this feels like just another hurdle we need to figure out how to get through.” 

But like all the other teachers I talked to, she misses her students—their faces, their laughs, their quirks: “They can bring such a spark of joy with their little personalities. They’re all very talented and bright in their own way, just not the way that you would expect.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.