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Parents concerned about COVID-19 toll on special education services

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Posted at 2:12 PM, Aug 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-06 21:09:45-04

SAN DIEGO (KGVT) - For many students across California, school is either back in session or will start soon in a virtual setting.

With uncertainty about what the school year will look like for all children, the parents of students identified as needing special education services are raising serious concerns about their child’s access to necessary supports and resources.

"Right now, school is virtual," said Sally Sachrison. "It’s been quite a challenge".

Sachrison's 12-year-old son just started the 7th grade. That's an achievement, but the emotions she's feeling are not the typical excitement of going back to school.

"It's just overwhelming because distance learning doesn't always work for everybody, and I feel like they have abandoned our kids that really the special services," Sachrison said.

Her son has Down syndrome and is autistic. His unique needs can’t be met over a computer, Sachrison said.

“The conflict is that my son needs like a special education teacher, he needs a speech pathologist, he needs an occupational therapist, and these are specialized, trained professionals," she explained.

Sachrison said she’s already noticed her child regressing just since schools moved to remote learning in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By May, he was slurring his speech and having trouble with other tasks, she described.

Regression and lack of services are a concern heard by attorney's and advocates from parents across the state.

"How do you take a parent and say hey we're going to train you to do occupational therapy even though you're not licensed to do it?” said Nicole Shelton, the executive director of Advocacy Associates Inc. "You don't have that background and still have that done virtually."

Advocacy Associates Inc. is an origination that helps families of students with specials needs get the services to which they are entitled by law.

In California, once a child is found eligible for special education, the family will participate in the process by attending an individualized education program or IEP.

It's both a process and a written document.

Shelton explained the IEP team, which includes representatives from the school and district, meets once every three years to conduct an assessment to ensure the student still qualifies. The team must also meet annually to review progress on goals, create new goals, and see what accommodations the student needs.

She said parents are concerned that won't happen.

"I think it's important for parents to be requesting IEP meetings right now," Shelton said.

There are also concerns about services not being provided and compensating students if they've regressed because they weren't provided with appropriate services and support.

"I think parents absolutely need the first step to be asking for that emergency IEP," she said. "We need to talk about services, and we need to talk about accommodation."

In Sachrison's case, the district told 10News, "Providing equitable educational experiences to all students including students with disabilities is a key priority for us and we want the service you receive to reflect that principle. Due to the current school closure emergency that prevents in-person instruction, student Individualized Education Plans will be implemented through distance learning to the greatest extent practical via online resources and other means. The IEP will be provided by means of ‘distance learning’, as determined by your child's teachers, in light of the emergency circumstances."

A district spokesperson explained, “‘Distance learning’ means instruction in which the pupil and instructor are in different locations. ‘Distance learning’ may include, but is not limited to, all of the following: (1) Interaction, instruction, and check-ins between teachers and pupils through the use of a computer or communications technology. (2) Video or audio instruction in which the primary mode of communication between the pupil and certificated employee is online interaction, instructional television, video, tele-courses, or other instruction that relies on computer or communications technology. (3) The use of print materials incorporating assignments that are the subject of written or oral feedback. This applies to the special education and related services in the IEP to the greatest extent possible in light of the emergency circumstances. Under current public health and CDE guidelines we cannot provide services either at the school, or in person, for more than 10 days due to the qualifying state of emergency. The parent will be notified as to the specific means by which the student's IEP will be provided, given the emergency circumstances present at that time. The IEP will be provided by alternative means as necessitated during the period of emergency conditions only."

The district said IEP meetings are being scheduled to take place virtually and it is dependent upon the IEP team to determine whether new goals will be developed on an individual basis.

When asked how the district plans to handle learning regression from the spring and forward and whether the state has provided any guidance a spokesperson explained, "When ‘regular’ school hours resume there will certainly be a need to discuss each students' services since distance learning falls short of providing optimal outcomes. At that time students with disabilities, in addition to ALL students in the general education setting, will have to undergo some form of instructional/educational recuperation. Our district is currently considering multiple options to meet this need."

A spokesperson for the California Department of Education said students who are receiving special education services through their school district have an IEP and the services and/or accommodations they receive are listed in that IEP.

"The federal government has not waived the federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and local educational agencies (LEA) should adhere to IDEA requirements. In the upcoming school year, local educational agencies in consultation with their local health agency may offer in-person instruction, distance learning, or a combination of both. Section 43503(b)(4) specifies that distance learning shall include "Special education, related services, and any other services required by a pupil's individualized education program pursuant to Section 56341, including the requirements of subparagraph (A) of paragraph (9) of subdivision (a) of Section 56345, with accommodations necessary to ensure that individualized education programs can be executed in a distance learning environment."