Families of special education students feeling particular pain of distance learning in pandemic
Rebekah Rocha is at her Windsor home doing two — or three — things at once. She’s on the phone and answering the door, all while talking to her daughter, Gigi, who is in the bathroom.
Gigi is nearly 12, the middle of Rocha and her husband Jose’s three children. Gigi was born with 5p- Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes delays in cognition and gross and fine motor skills, as well as in speech and language.
She had been learning to use the toilet but regressed since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools in March. Gigi is nonverbal and Rocha describes her as “severely handicapped,” and yet she thrived in her fifth grade class at Brooks Elementary School last year. There, she received special education support but was also integrated into a general education classroom.
Without school — without the routine, regular therapy sessions and daily socialization with peers — Gigi has struggled. And that has meant Rocha has struggled, too. A painstakingly crafted schedule for two working parents with three kids — one with special needs — started to show cracks early in the shelter in place last spring when all three kids could no longer attend school and Rocha was forced to work from home.
On this day, Rocha, principal at Cesar Chavez Language Academy in Santa Rosa, pulls the phone away from her face to give the just-arrived babysitter an update on Gigi’s progress in potty training. Rocha tells the sitter that she has been rewarding her daughter’s success on that front with small bathtub toys. She returns to the phone.
“Honestly, I am like ’How am I going to have a job and deal with her?’ ” she said last week. “I have to talk myself off my ledge and say, ’OK, problem solve.’ I have to go back to work August 1.”
’How am I going to survive this?’
Nearly 13% of Sonoma County’s 70,000 transitional kindergarten- through-high school students receive some level of special education services. Some services are in-depth for medically fragile or nonambulatory students who receive lessons in textures, colors and smells. Other services include an individualized education plan that can outline needs such as extra time for test taking or the use of a nontraditional chair.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut every school in the county last March, parents were suddenly faced with balancing either working from home and delivering lessons to their kids, or going to work and hoping their kids manage online learning on their own. Parents of students with special education needs were even more at sea.
The same big, general education class that Gigi thrived in during the school year was meaningless for her once her 30 classmates morphed into 30 tiny faces on a computer screen, her mom said.
And her individualized therapies that came within the school day? Those fell to family.
And as the pandemic rages on, Rocha feels overwhelmed by the prospect of another school year playing out like the final months of spring.
“They are not going to get anything, kids like my daughter,” Rocha said. “They are just not getting any services and we are expected to be their everything. Her behavioral therapy was online ... and it was telling me what I needed to do.”
As an educator herself, Rocha does not want to complain. She knows full well the bind that districts throughout California and the rest of the nation are in with dilemma of whether or not to open schools in a pandemic. She knows, too, that federally mandated special education services have not been fully funded by the federal government for years.
Families from Hawaii to New York have sued their school districts, demanding the return of services and arguing that distance learning as delivered to the general education population is not feasible — or equal under the law — for most special education students.
A slew of physical and occupational therapies involve touch, something new health and safety protocols do not allow. Students with attention deficit issues often struggle with Zoom-formatted classes. Masks and facial coverings can make crucial communication between adults and children nearly impossible.
In the spring, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos urged flexibility during school closures and said that students who did not have access to called-for therapies should be reevaluated in the fall and could receive compensatory services.
But with 9,000 students in the county potentially lining up to have their individualized education plans updated in the fall, the wait could be painfully long. And parents like Rocha say they know what the evaluations will find: Likely a dramatic regression in academic, behavioral and physical benchmarks.