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California Special Needs Students Left Behind Amidst COVID-19 Education Changes

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees disabled students access to equal, high-quality, and free public education. However, as California nears its third week of physical school closures amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, special needs students are being left behind in the struggle to navigate the uncharted territory of distance learning.

Approximately 800,000 California students receive special education services. Additionally, tens of thousands of children under 3 receive specialized services through California’s Department of Developmental Services’ 21 regional centers. The type of care and instruction special needs students receive ranges from sit-in aides to speech therapists to teams of educators and specialists. These are highly trained professionals with years of experience working with specific conditions, and experts warn that parents just can’t be expected to fill in for these specialized roles.

“You’ve got severe kids who, for six and a half hours a day, have a one-on-one aide and a teacher in their classroom, and they’re on this really strict and rigid routine because that’s what they need,” California Association of Resource and Special Educators President Nica Cox stated,  “Now they’re at home, and a parent doesn’t know how to do that.”

So far, educators received broad guidance on ensuring the continuation of services laid out in each student’s individualized education plans amidst social distancing rules. According to both state lawmakers and parents, this broad guidance just isn’t enough.

Kristin Wright, California director of special education, acknowledged that students, educators, and families are facing overwhelming challenges. In a March 18 webinar, Wright noted, “every student will not be able to access online learning in the same way that they accessed their education in their classrooms at school. But again, we need to think about each of our individual students and their (individualized plans) to ensure we do the best we can to meet their needs in these times.”

California lawmakers are working hard to narrow guidance and protect schools from possible litigation– a strong possibility if they can’t provide special needs students with the “free and appropriate education” guaranteed under federal law. California is hosting a webinar on Thursday to discuss distance learning innovations for special needs students. A statewide group of experts is developing best practices for providing remote special education services. Governor Newsom has a call scheduled Monday with all 58 county superintendents to have “a very sober conversation … about the expectations for the remainder of the school year.”

Meanwhile, special needs students, parents, and educators are struggling. Natalia Acosta, a Tracy mother of two toddlers with special needs, has had to choose between paying her mortgage and funding regular, private insurance therapy sessions for Jonathan, her 3-year-old autistic son. Like many parents, Acosta worries the disruption will delay Jonathan’s developmental progress.

Some educators, like Alameda County special education teacher Sherry Doyle, have been staying up until 1:30 a.m. preparing their online Classrooms and lesson plans with resources and materials for parents. Doyle now spends a significant portion of her days connecting with and assisting parents who lack her professional training and teaching experience.

“I wish I could just take everything I know and give it to the parents,” Doyle said, “just so they have a sense of where to take things.”

[EdSource, 3/19/2020][California Government, 3/13/2020][CalMatters, 3/13/2020, 3/19/2020,  3/31/2020]

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