When Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) introduced online instruction due to COVID-19 in March, students who have special learning needs were disproportionately affected as compared to their more able counterparts. In-person instruction gives special needs students resources that cannot be replaced by a couple virtual meetings throughout the week…
Carolyne (whose name, along with her son’s name, has been changed at her request) is a single mother of two, and this past year her special needs son Daniel was a fourth-grader at William Burnett Elementary School. Under normal circumstances, Daniel was in a classroom with 12 students with similar needs. The class was facilitated by one teacher along with two to three aides. Meanwhile, Daniel received speech therapy through the school, as well.
Under shelter in place rules, however, Daniel had a daily Google classroom hangout. Every day at the same time, the class came together and did a condensed version of their normal routine. Each student was also sent a packet of worksheets that the teachers had created, along with online activities.
The shift to online instruction, however, took a toll—not only on the quality of education that Daniel was receiving, but also on Carolyne’s own workload.
Burnett teachers had taken steps to train parents on how to provide instruction while allowing room for their students to problem solve on their own, Burnett Principal Hanna Asrat explained in an email. If distance learning continues, the school will “ensure that all special education staff schedule meetings not just with students but with parents to review instructional practices.”
“You’re going from a classroom setting, going from a lot of help—3 adults for 12 kids is a lot—and he needs a lot of help and a lot of assistance,” Carolyne said. “I’m a working mom, a single mom. Having him be the level that he’s at and trying to work and have another child that has to have school, it’s been a struggle.”
Yet the district can alleviate the burden for parents like Carolyne, she proposes, not only by tailoring the lesson plan to each student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, but to how much aid each family can provide in terms of filling the gaps left over by online education.
“It’s going to be different for [families] who have two parents or help versus someone like myself,” Carolyne continued. Though Daniel’s teacher provided Carolyne with support, the level at which Daniel and his classmates were expected to perform was not always attainable.
But Carolyne does not believe that the school and MUSD’s handling of the pandemic were distinct contributors to the difficulty of the situation. The very nature of the pandemic has forced schools across the country to close, and it has thus been left up to individual educators to address the shortcomings of virtual education, especially for students like Daniel.
For Kavita Sreedhar’s daughter, Pragnya, distance learning proved to be significantly detrimental not only to her long-term education, but also to her day-to-day schedule. For the 2019-2020 school year, Pragnya was a sophomore at Milpitas High School (MHS) and part of the Community Based Instruction program (CBI). CBI students are taught functional and “life-ready” skills, often facilitated through hands-on learning opportunities.
Pragnya needs speech therapy, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, and one-on-one behavior therapy, as well as academic instruction. The switch to distance learning caused her to revert to habits that her in-person behavior therapy had attempted to alleviate.
“You turn their comfort zone, which is home, into a place of work,” Sreedhar said, “which results in other behavior escalations with the kids. Because a lot of them cannot really comprehend why this is happening.”
From the day that schools were closed, to the week after spring break, the school did not offer the interactive therapy services that Pragnya needed, her mother said. Though academic instruction continued during this time, the additional therapy sessions did not begin until after spring break, she added.
“After five weeks is when speech therapy started,” Sreedhar said. And when virtual occupational therapy began, instead of regular sessions that might work toward improving everyday activities such as brushing one’s teeth or slicing an apple, Pragnya was only sent a printout of “generic occupational therapy techniques”—and this instead of having an interactive meeting with a professional. Moreover, as the school year went on, the aide that once had regular one-on-one check-ins with Pragnya had “not been in touch or provided any form of check-in or hands-on support since the day of school closures.”
Pragnya’s mother was told by a teacher that her daughter’s 1:1 aide was let go the day that schools announced they were closing. MHS Assistant Principal Jonathan Mach, who supports the special education department, said that he “does not know of the incident” in an email.
“We have had to make private hires and try to get support for her during this time,” Sreedhar said. “We take her for private speech. We take her for private tutoring. The district level [leadership] is good, but Milpitas needs help.”
MUSD’s Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Development Norma Rodriguez acknowledged the difficulty of the situation. In case the virus persists in the same capacity as it is currently, she said that MUSD is working on different contingency plans.
“It is work in progress, it is not perfect and we continue to reflect,” Rodriguez said. “As constraints are lifted we have to be careful if we are to bring back the students in a hybrid model, we would have to make sure that we have the safeguards in place to ensure their safety as well.”
Elijah Grande, last year a junior at Wilcox High School, is autistic. WHS, located in Santa Clara, has approximately 1,900 students, and of those, close to 13 percent have special needs, according to board meeting data from June 4.
Though Elijah is in “mainstream” classes, a couple aides in some of his classes helped him and other students with similar needs, Elijah’s mother, Shari, said during a phone call. Additionally, Elijah had a case manager who checked in with him at the end of each day.
After distance learning went into effect, the case manager continued to meet with Elijah. In the early stages of the stay at home order, the case manager carved out a specific time for her and Elijah to check in virtually. Toward the end of the school year, because the case manager lives so close to Elijah, they began meeting in-person at a six-feet distance in the family’s front yard.
While Elijah was able to find different ways to communicate with both his case manager and other aides as distance learning continued, the Sreedhars still needed to find resources outside the school to continue facilitating Pragnya’s progress as a student.
“[Elijah] checks in every other week with his speech teacher,” Shari Grande said as the 2019-20 school year came to a close. “That is almost therapeutic. He’s had the same speech person for a while so it’s kind of comforting for him to have a one-on-one with people who have known him for a while.”
Though Sreedhar and her family have had difficulties with the circumstances of the pandemic, she still appreciates district leaders like Supt. Cheryl Jordan, Board Vice President Chris Norwood and Asst. Supt. Norma Rodriguez, who have been proactive in responding to parents’ feedback. MHS Principal Francis Rojas has also been instrumental in making sure that the special education program is being revamped to best serve those with special needs, Sreedhar said.
Editor’s Note: The article has been updated.