Checking in regularly with families, making sure parents have the technology they need and being eternally flexible were among the educator tips shared at the California Department of Education’s first webinar on how to provide special education during the statewide school closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The webinar, hosted by the department’s Director of Special Education Kristin Wright, offered specific guidelines for how teachers should handle services for students with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and other disabilities while schools are closed.
“As we’ve been working as a state to increase inclusivity in schools and in communities, this departure into a virtual world is extremely challenging,” she said. “But we want to make sure we are able to meet the needs of all of our students with disabilities.”
As districts shift classes online in response to the pandemic, special education is a hurdle at some schools because of the 1-on-1, personalized attention students receive.
The webinar included tips from educators in rural Northern California, Los Angeles Unified, Dublin Unified in the East Bay area, a charter school in Los Angeles and the Eureka City Schools District. More than 7,000 viewed the livestream on Facebook and the department website. The department will host weekly webinars on special education for the next few weeks, Wright said.
Mindy Fattig, director of the Humboldt-Del Norte Special Education Local Plan Area, emphasized the importance of checking in often with families and seeing if their needs are met, starting with food and shelter. Because some families live in remote areas with spotty internet access, she suggested that teachers call, in addition to email, and show compassion and patience during these stressful times.
“Focus on mental health needs,” she said.
A dose of realism helps, too, she said.
“We recognize we will not be able to meet every student’s needs as if they were physically in our classrooms,” she said. “But we have to support the family and the student wherever and however we can. Our role is far beyond an educational one.”
Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, has taken a three-tiered approach in order to reach as many families as possible, according to Antonio Aguilar, the district’s director of special education, equity and access. The low-tech tier includes workbooks and worksheets. Next is moderate tech, which includes the partnership the district has with public television stations in Los Angeles. The high-tech tier calls for distributing laptops and tablets to families.
Robbie Kreitz, a resource specialist in Dublin Unified, had practical advice on conducting Individualized Education Program meetings with parents. The programs outline what special education students should learn in a specified period of time and what services they need. The meetings, which are legally required, can continue through the school closures using electronic signatures and online meeting platforms such as Zoom.
But ultimately, communicating regularly with families is the most important task, Kreitz said.
“This all happened overnight,” she said. “We need to connect with families, remind them we’re still here, your school is still here, your child is not lost in the process.”
At WISH charter school in Los Angeles, Executive Director Shawna Draxton said special education teachers are teaching online every morning and offering 1-to-1 virtual office hours every afternoon for families. They’re also maintaining extracurricular activities online, such as art, music and physical education, to give students some enrichment and routine.
For students who rely on school for socialization, teachers are meeting with small groups online and playing games like Pictionary, she said. The school is also offering mental health counseling, as well as academic counseling, via Zoom.
In addition, the school has set up a technical support phone line for families having trouble getting online. And it’s giving teachers extra money to upgrade their home internet service.
Two teachers from Eureka City Schools offered tips on reaching families of young children. They suggested weekly meetings with families on Zoom to sing, read stories, play with puppets and otherwise have fun. They also suggested ways to ensure families get the materials they need, especially those who don’t have a computer or internet access at home, or don’t speak English. Make sure materials are in the family’s home language, and mail them through the U.S. Postal Service or drop them off personally at the family’s home, if needed.
Wright called on teachers to pay special attention to students with autism or other developmental disabilities who may be feeling particular loneliness or despair during the pandemic. She also reminded teachers to check in not just with students, but with their own families, friends, neighbors and anyone who might be isolated.
“We know this is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” she said. “And we know this is not easy. As a parent, I personally know it’s not easy. But we appreciate you. … I am completely in awe of all of you who do this good work.”