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Pandemic necessitates greater action to help students with special needs

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As a special educator for 40 years and a grandmother of a child with dyslexia, I am struggling with navigating school in the age of coronavirus.

In March, when California schools sent students home to learn virtually, a shockwave of panic was set into motion for families of children with special needs. While distance learning poses a plethora of problems for families of general education students, the situation is compounded for students with disabilities. Overnight, children were schooling at home, oftentimes in their bedrooms, without direct instruction from a classroom teacher.

This posed an insurmountable challenge for students with disabilities.

Routine, consistency and specialized instruction from a credentialed teacher are the cornerstones of a special education student's needs in a learning environment. Special education teachers are the critical players in the education of a student with disabilities. They develop individualized education plans for each student, design specialized instruction based on the specific needs of the student and deliver face-to-face direct instruction for their students.

In some cases, special ed teachers and their assistants provide instruction and support in physically demanding tasks, such as toileting, feeding and mobility.

All of this came to a screeching halt when the coronavirus closed school doors throughout our state. Suddenly, parents were thrust into the role of teacher, assistant, tutor and behavior manager.

In California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, most parents work full time. This has created an unprecedented burden on families as they attempt to negotiate the care, needs and education of their children.

This does not even begin to account for the stress upon families and students with special needs as they face the daily frustration of sitting in front of a computer screen without a teacher in the room to provide the specialized instruction, guidance, redirection and support so vital to the education of these children.

As a professor of special education, I am overwhelmed with the potential long-term repercussions of this pandemic on our most vulnerable children. I have witnessed first-hand the decay in learning and the impact on my grandson's academic growth since March of this year when learning moved online.

Academic progress and learning are hard-fought battles for students with disabilities. Removing the teacher and learners from the classroom robs special education students of their access to an education. The online experiment has failed. At this point, most of the information on students with disabilities in California is anecdotal or based on annual special education assessments; however, even these indicators point to a learning regression.

While I am very aware and concerned about the risks to school personnel, especially teachers, with a premature move to reopen schools, there was a stipulation for students with disabilities that was put into effect in August 2020 from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). The CDPH guidelines support "in-person targeted, specialized support such as small group learning for students with disabilities and district or school "hubs" for distance learning and childcare."

As an educator, advocate and grandparent, I believe we need to collaborate at a statewide level with the governor's office, the superintendent of instruction, teacher and union representatives, and families to plan for a safe re-entry into cohort, small group, one-to-one instruction or school "hubs" for students with disabilities in California.

I would encourage our school districts, principals and educators to get informed. Begin by reading the guidelines established by the California Department of Public Health for providing one-to-one or small-group instruction for students with disabilities.

I also recommend contacting Gov. Gavin Newsom and/or California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and requesting action to initiate steps to provide face-to-face, one-to-one or small-group instruction, or school "hubs," for students with disabilities under the guidelines established by the California Department of Public Health.

In the meantime, teachers and parents need to be better prepared for the difficult times. There are numerous (and sometimes free) programs set up to support online distance learning training, such as Parents: Supporting Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic and Parents Helping Parents.

Jennifer Madigan is a professor emerita at San Jose State University. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the East Bay Express.

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