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North Bay special education teachers rely on compassion, creativity to help students during pandemic

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Rabia Foreman wanted to encourage her special education students to wash their hands more, especially given how effective it can be at preventing spread of the coronavirus.

The Petaluma speech therapist used a science experiment that combined soap, water and pepper to symbolize germs so her students, who have speech disorders or difficulties communicating, were able to see how a disease can latch onto the body.

Afterward, Foreman gathered her class in a video conference on Zoom, and they discussed how putting a little soap on their fingers made it impossible for the pepper — or germs, in this case — to stick. Lessons on life skills are vital for children with disabilities, she said, and this was one way to instill a crucial piece of prevention with each of her students forced out of their classrooms for the rest of the school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“They’re very visual and tactile learners,” said Foreman, who works for a special ed consortium that serves nine Petaluma-area school districts. “So if you say ‘Wash your hands,’ it won’t necessarily stick with them.”

The change to distance learning, which has upended the education of about 70,000 public school students in Sonoma County, has been even more abrupt for children with disabilities. Roughly 10,400 local students receive special education services, reliant on strict daily routines, hands-on learning and precious human contact that’s hard to replicate outside the classroom.

Sonoma County Office of Education Superintendent Steve Herrington, whose agency serves about 400 children with the most significant needs in the county, said the school environment is vital for this segment of the population. To lose it so suddenly for the rest of the school year could hinder their development.

“Some of the neediest students — that are within special education — need the personal contact, need the specialization,” Herrington said. “That’s what you lose when you do distance learning, that human interaction.”

The path to distance learning in special education has been fraught with many of the same issues that have impacted traditional classrooms over the past month, like a lack of internet access in rural or impoverished areas and various obstacles to participation.

But some special education teachers have noted a relatively stable transition, citing the strong bonds between teachers, support staff and the families they serve.

Where distance learning falls short is for children that are bedridden, receive medical treatment at school or have behavior disorders that require extra attention, said Mandy Corbin, assistant superintendent of special education for SCOE.

The priority for teachers has been creating a structured schedule for students at home, she said, and establishing an on-call approach so parents already facing other hardships from sheltering in place don’t feel overwhelmed.

“Those special educators that receive the kids during the day, it’s a partnership, and in most cases it’s a strong partnership,” Corbin said. “The key really has been trying to work with families around having a daily routine that works for their family, and being available to listen.”

Santa Rosa City Schools has opted for a slower approach to remotely teaching the 2,545 special needs students under its care, said Sonya Randrup, the district’s director of special services.

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Each student receiving special education is required to have a tailored academic plan under federal law, and teachers are still required to complete those plans under distance learning, she said. Santa Rosa teachers underwent a day of professional development this week to identify ways to provide academic instruction to special needs students remotely while respecting that some students might not be ready for math or reading just yet.

“We’re moving really slow and looking at how compassionate we can be, how creative we can be,” Randrup said. “There’s no ‘one size fits all’ in this. It’s case by case.”

The vast majority of Sonoma County teachers had about one day to prepare for distance learning, with discussions about school closures beginning last month, just days before classrooms emptied for spring break. For special education teachers, that made it almost impossible to prepare their students since closures were announced countywide during the break.

Many students with special needs have had a difficult time adjusting to seeing their teachers and classmates through a computer screen, said Kathryn Davy, director of the West County Special Ed Consortium.

Some of the youngest students have had the most adverse reactions, but with consistent efforts and social stories to help explain school closures, children have grown to enjoy virtual meetings, and any opportunity to interact with their teachers and classmates, she said.

“The better relationship we have with families, the better it’s going to be over time,” Davy said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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