Coronavirus Compounds Challenges for Special Education

In Marin County, Calif., remote education during the pandemic is proving to be a struggle for many homebound parents and families, but for those with special needs children it’s even more demanding.

by Keri Brenner, The Marin Independent Journal / April 10, 2020
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(TNS) — Remote education during the pandemic is a struggle for many parents in Marin County, Calif., but for those with special needs children it’s even more demanding.

“Coping with anxiety and learning differences in kids with special needs is hard on a good day,” said San Anselmo resident Deanna Brock, whose son is in public and private programs. “These kids don’t typically do well with change, and so to have their routines suddenly cut off is very hard.”

The county has more than 4,000 Marin schoolchildren with special needs. While each student’s individualized educational plan — or IEP– has aspects that can be done remotely, other things cannot go online, said Kentfield school parent Jenny Novack.

“My son is supposed to have a paraprofessional aide with him all day long,” Novack said. “You can’t do that remotely. It’s not possible to implement all aspects of an IEP remotely.”

Jonathan Lenz, assistant superintendent for the Marin County Office of Education, said Marin teachers and administrators are working hard to fill the gaps.

“There is no question that this is a work in progress,” Lenz said in an email. “We are getting better at this new service delivery model every day. I believe that the foundation of this work is communication — within and amongst the IEP team members and parents — and adjustment, just as it was when students were sitting in desks at school.”

For Valerie Halbardier of Novato, it’s hard to imagine that any amount of communication could help with the scheduling challenges in her single parent household during the virus crisis.

In addition to being the mom and home-schooler of 7-year-old Malachi, who has Down syndrome and who is learning remotely from his teacher at a county class, Halbardier herself is a special ed teacher and is remotely teaching a preschool class in the Novato Unified School District.

Also, Halbardier has two other children at home receiving remote learning — a 9-year-old son in fourth grade at San Ramon Elementary School and a 4-year-old daughter who attends a private preschool. In all, the family has four computers and one iPad — and most are logged on every day.

“It’s definitely a challenge in scheduling,” Halbardier said. “It’s not an ideal situation.”

For example, Malachi’s county teacher sent out a daily routine to parents that includes an 11 a.m. Zoom group class. However, Halbardier also has an 11 a.m. Zoom class with her Novato preschool kids. She has told Malachi’s teacher that she will need to move some things around on Malachi’s schedule to make it all work.

“For me to accomplish all of what the teacher sent out in a day is not possible, while I’m also trying to focus that attention on my child,” Halbardier said. “I’m doing as much as I can.”

Another major complication is that special needs children have previously enjoyed the home as a place to play, not do school work. Coaxing the kids to make that adjustment to study at home is taking time and a lot of patience, Halbardier said.

“Home has been the nurturing place to relax after a day’s therapy in school,” she said. “To make home into a work place is a challenge.”

Last week, Rep. Jared Huffman, whose district includes Marin, and dozens of congressional colleagues signed a letter to the House leadership urging it to include full funding for special education programs in future coronavirus relief packages.

The government’s recent $2 trillion relief package — known as the CARES Act — creates a set-aside for educational programs. Those include programs designed for students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — or IDEA. However, there is still a greater need for the full funding the government promised over 40 years ago, the letter said.

“As schools move to remote learning, the resources promised by the federal government in IDEA are even more essential,” the representatives said in their letter. “The CARES Act is a step in the right direction, but it is necessary that IDEA receives its own designated set-aside in any future packages.”

Lenz said Marin teachers are using a combination of teleconferencing, videoconferencing, hard copy work packets and online curricula to keep kids with special needs on track with remote learning.

Beyond that, the county has lined up several resources for children with specific issues such as autism, for example. One is the Project ECHO counseling model, in partnership with UC Davis Mind Institute, that coordinates help remotely for families with a panel of autism experts.

Lenz said Marin is following guidance from state special education officials.

“(The officials) have indicated that districts need to do their best to provide services consistent with the IEP to the maximum extent possible — and that is exactly what our districts are doing during these unprecedented times,” Lenz said. “This is no easy task and we have been doing our best to support teachers, students and families as they transition to remote learning.”

Kids who require one-on-one counseling may receive it through private Zoom sessions, Novack said. Since her son Phillip is only 7, she must attend the Zoom counseling sessions with him. Both she and her husband are also working from home.

“I’m an employee, I’m a mom, I’m a home-school teacher and a telecounselor,” said Novack, who also has a 3-year-old daughter at home from preschool. “It’s crazy. Everyone’s doing their best, but it’s not ideal.”

Another issue is motivation. Without the promise of a warm smile, praise from a teacher or a friendly chat with peers, some kids with special needs might feel they have nothing to look forward to while sitting at a computer all day at home.

“Some of our parents have said their kids don’t even want to get up and go to school,” said Jolene Yee, director of the Irene M. Hunt School, a non-public day school in San Anselmo for children with behavioral and emotional challenges. “They just don’t want to do it.”

On Monday, the Hunt School will launch $5 weekly gift card raffles in each class, bi-monthly $15 gift card raffles schoolwide and a monthly $20 gift card award for the student who has the highest number of points in the school. Points are earned for attendance and logging on, engagement and participation during remote classes and for completing assignments.

Gift cards can be for PlayStation or Amazon online, or for Target stores that have grocery departments and thus are open for in-person shopping during the official “shelter in place” orders.

“Our parents and kids are really, really excited about this,” said Hunt teacher Chloe Lechuga, who teaches a combined fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade class. “We’re trying to make the gift cards specific to each kid.”

Brock, whose son Ben, 12, attends a combination of two non-academic classes at White Hill Middle School in Fairfax and the rest of his classes at the Hunt school, said he is doing well to adapt to remote learning from both school sites.

At the same time, she is hoping that the months of remote learning ahead will not interfere with Ben’s plan to continue his migration to the mainstream classes at White Hill in the fall. For the last three years, Ben’s goal has been to transition to mainstream classes, she said.

“I said to him, ‘Would it be OK if you’re not able to start right away in the fall in eighth grade at White Hill?'” Brock said. “He said, ‘I guess it will be OK if it’s just for a couple months.'”

Freddie Mika, a senior at Redwood High School in Larkspur who has had some special needs, is doing quite well with the technology of remote learning, his mom Julia Mika said. His main issue, she said, is the loss of the social activities and connections for senior year and graduation.

On Tuesday, Marin education officials said school campuses will stay closed for the rest of the school year.

“As a senior, he is mourning the social distances,” Julia Mika said. “Daily, he asks if the coronavirus has passed, because he is obsessed with all the wonderful school-related hoopla that goes with being a 2020 high school graduate.”

She added: “Day 4 of the ‘shelter at home,’ he wrote his graduation speech and posted it to the refrigerator.”

Last week, Marin school districts surveyed teachers and families to “determine what areas of remote learning are working well and what areas could be enhanced,” Lenz said. “The results of the survey will guide the continuous development of the remote learning model.

“We are all trying to rapidly make sense of a very dynamic situation,” he said.

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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