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Special education will be one of the biggest challenges for schools going online

Updated: May 19, 2020

Schools are asked to provide special education services to the “maximum extent possible”

As Mo Martin watched her 7-year-old daughter Fiona take part in Zoom teleconferences last week, she grew concerned about how her daughter is going to learn online. During one session, as a first-grade teacher read a book to students online, Martin figured Fiona paid attention to maybe half of it.

Fiona attends Alcott Elementary in San Diego and has Down syndrome. Even before schools closed last month to slow the spread of COVID-19, Fiona, like many students with disabilities, needed hands-on materials and in-person interaction to get her engaged in learning. Martin says she can’t imagine Fiona getting all her education through a computer screen for the rest of the school year. “We just feel she’s falling through the cracks, and nothing’s really ... pointed or suited towards her or her learning,” Martin said. Fiona is one of more than 725,000 California students with identified disabilities, including 56,000 in San Diego County. Schools now have to find ways for virtually all of those students — each with a particular set of disabilities and needs — to learn online.

It’s proving to be one of school districts’ greatest challenges because special education is required by federal law to be highly personalized, and it tends to rely on in-person interaction. “We’re having to deliver instruction in a way we’ve never had to deliver it before, and it raises all kinds of challenges for us,” said Greg Mizel, associate superintendent for student support services at Poway Unified. Mizel and others said schools don’t have the answers yet on how to provide every special education service online the way they would have in school. “Right now, nobody knows,” said Bob Cunningham, executive director for learning development at Understood, an organization for children with disabilities. “There aren’t answers because nobody has experienced this.”

Special education services run the gamut, from providing a personal aide to speech therapy, occupational therapy, Braille instruction, behavioral therapy, and feeding and diapering a student.

Much of special education tends to be sensory and hands-on, experts say. For example, students with certain disabilities rely on school-provided occupational therapy to help them accomplish physical tasks like writing or typing.

Officials say some special education services are unrealistic — if not impossible — to replicate in a home setting if keeping a physical distance is required. Districts like San Diego Unified are telling special education teachers to do the best they can and provide services “to the maximum extent possible.”

“Being able to provide online or distance learning ... that’s going to 100 percent meet the (Individualized Education Program) goals as written … it’s not gonna happen. I think the district knows this,” said Moira Allbritton, chair of San Diego Unified’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. Allbritton also is parent of children with disabilities. At school there’s a team of staff members who are certified and trained to provide many kinds of therapies, specialized instruction and physical support students need. At home parents have to somehow substitute for all of them.

“It’s going to be hard because families are going to have to be the teacher and be the therapist and be directly involved for the teacher,” Allbritton said. “Whatever kinds of inequities exist in our system, they’re gonna be … magnified in a distance learning kind of thing.”

For some services, like occupational therapy or speech therapy, parents can receive help from experts via teleconference. But it will typically be up to parents to actually deliver the therapy to their kids.

For example, for Fiona’s occupational therapy, Martin has been playing a game where Fiona throws a ball at a wall with letters, then writes whatever letter the ball hits. For services that can’t be provided at home or online, officials are expecting schools will have to pay to provide make-up services after students physically return to school, whenever that will be.

“That is huge, and that will come with high cost,” said Cara Schukoske, executive director of special education services at the San Diego County Office of Education. In the federal coronavirus relief package approved last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was authorized to seek congressional approval to waive some of schools’ legal responsibilities to provide special education. That idea has some special education advocates concerned that services and legal protections for students may be weakened. “Right now everyone is trying to ... scramble to do their best to provide whatever it is they feel they can provide,” said Cunningham at Understood. “The question as to whether or not that’s enough is going to have to be addressed once that report is in and once everyone has had a chance to react to it.”

Meanwhile many students with disabilities have been going weeks without services because of the school closures. Many parents say they haven’t been told yet if and how their children will get all the special education services they used to get in school.

“This needs to be addressed because parents are concerned, and they have questions,” said Emily Forgeron, a parent of an E. B. Scripps Elementary kindergartener with autism. Forgeron said last week that she hadn’t heard from her school or San Diego Unified about whether her daughter will get the speech therapy, occupational therapy to help her write, one-on-one aide or one-on-one instruction that she used to get in school.

Schukoske said districts were not obligated to provide special education during the first couple weeks or so of the closures because of their sudden, emergency nature. Schukoske said districts will have to provide special education once they officially launch distance learning for all students — which is as early as Monday for Poway and as late as April 27 for San Diego Unified.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said the district will make a “good faith effort” to tailor online instruction to students with disabilities’ needs and provide appropriate services.

“We are clear on students’ (Individualized Education Program) goals and what they need to learn. But how they meet those goals, given the situation has changed, means we adapt to that,” Marten said. In the meantime, parents are worried that their children will regress academically or socially because of gap in services.

Several services and goals written in students’ special education plans are for more than just academics; they’re also for students’ behavior, socializing and health.

For example, one of the goals for Allbritton’s son who has autism is to make social exchanges with a peer, which Allbritton thinks is impossible now with social distancing. “Anything where we’re saying they need this peer to participate, those goals cannot be met in the home,” Allbritton said.

Kelly Mattingly, who has a 10-year-old son with autism, said her son doesn’t know how to go up to somebody and say, “Hi, my name’s Jake, will you play with me?” She worries his social skills will regress now, but she said she can’t do much about it.

What Martin fears most, she says, is that her daughter would fall behind because of the closures. She worries her school would revoke its decision to include her in a general education classroom and instead put her in a separate classroom only for special education kids. It’s unclear whether regression resulting from school closures will lead schools to change students’ special education plans.

For Poway Unified, whatever modified services students get during these school closures will not be “stay-put” services, meaning they will not remain as the special education placements when students return to school, Mizel said. While parents are worried about changes in services, several said they understand that the pandemic has put schools in an unprecedented and difficult position.

“I keep telling everybody it’s gonna be a big asterisk by this semester,” Allbritton said. “We’re all gonna do just what we can do.”

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