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The transition to distance learning brings different challenges for parents and teachers of children with special needs 

When SLO County's schools first announced plans to close in mid-March, it was a Friday, and within the window of a weekend, administrators, teachers, and parents like Sara McGrath were forced to adapt to an entirely new model of education.

Teachers transformed their classrooms to virtual forums, administrators worked to identify families in need of computers and wireless internet, and parents were suddenly tasked with schooling their children from home. It's been chaotic for everyone involved, but even more so for parents like McGrath, who is juggling work and homeschooling her two kids, one a sixth grader and the other an 8-year-old with Down syndrome, Liam.

click to enlarge PARENTS HELPING PARENTS Family Resource Specialist Sara McGrath leads a virtual bilingual reading session with her 8-year-old son, Liam. McGrath works at Parents Helping Parents of SLO, an organization that helps connect the families of children with special needs to available resources. - SCREENSHOT FROM FACEBOOK
  • Screenshot From Facebook
  • PARENTS HELPING PARENTS Family Resource Specialist Sara McGrath leads a virtual bilingual reading session with her 8-year-old son, Liam. McGrath works at Parents Helping Parents of SLO, an organization that helps connect the families of children with special needs to available resources.

"The first couple of weeks I was overwhelmed and feeling crazy," McGrath told New Times, "like so many parents are."

When it comes to educating children with special needs, the approach varies greatly, but it tends to be much more hands-on and individualized than in general education. Many students with special needs require constant one-on-one care, some have unique medical needs, and others attend various counseling and therapy sessions through their schools.

The normal mode of individualized education made the transition to distance learning more intense for those teaching and parenting children with special needs.

McGrath's daughter is old enough to work mostly on her own, but Liam needs a lot of attention. He's enrolled in a general education second grade class at Pacheco Elementary School, where he works one-on-one with an instructional assistant throughout the day and sees a speech language pathologist and an occupational therapist a few times each week.

So on top of helping him complete his usual assignments and coordinating with his general education teacher, McGrath is in constant communication with his occupational therapist, speech pathologist, and instructional assistant, all who have their own Zoom sessions to set up and tasks to assign.

It's a lot, and compared to some other local families of children with special needs, McGrath says her family has it easy. Her husband was laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so, even though they're losing income, he's had plenty of free time to help their son with schoolwork. And the instructional assistant who works with McGrath's son has gone above and beyond anyone's expectations—staying in touch, helping out, and even dropping off treats.

Going the distance

But the transition to distance learning hasn't been so simple for everyone, and McGrath knows that better than most. As a family resource specialist at Parents Helping Parents of SLO, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children with special needs and their families, McGrath consistently works to connect families of children with special needs to local resources, and she's heard from some parents who are really struggling with distance learning.

One parent McGrath works with is taking college courses online while homeschooling an energetic 4-year-old and a 7-year-old with autism. The parent has to be at her 7-year-old's side for everything—virtual class meetings, behavioral therapy sessions, classwork. Sometimes they work together nonstop from early morning until dinner and still can't get to everything.

Another parent McGrath knows has a junior high school student with special needs who normally attends six general education classes and completes modified assignments. When schools closed, the district dropped three of the student's classes to make his distance-learning workload more manageable for everyone involved. But the parent worries her child is losing an important part of his education.

That's a concern for a number of parents of children with special needs, who McGrath said feel like they can't make it to every therapy session, assignment, and Zoom meeting their children are supposed to attend. Some, including McGrath herself, have given up on doing every single little thing.

"Our mental health and our kids' mental health is most important," McGrath told New Times. "So we're not going to sweat it too much."

That's the attitude the SLO County Office of Education is taking as well, according to Katherine Aaron, assistant superintendent for student programs and services.

When schools closed in March, it happened suddenly, and Aaron said it forced districts to move rapidly to a distance-learning model. That changed everything about how students with special needs will meet their learning goals, and in some cases, changed the goals entirely.

The SLO County Office of Education runs highly specialized education programs compared to the school districts throughout the county, from programs for deaf and blind students to courses offered in juvenile detention.

Building while flying

For some families of children with special needs, especially those with unique needs, homeschooling wouldn't be realistic without the appropriate technology and materials. So Aaron said the first few weeks of the shutdown were dedicated largely to identifying any families in need of special accommodations and getting those needs met.

But every family and situation is different, and Aaron said every classroom is too. For some, the main focus is ensuring there's enough food to survive. For others, just making contact is a challenge.

"To me, education is the third focus," Aaron told New Times. "If we can get to some education, I think that's a bonus during this time. My biggest thing, especially with these specialized populations, is that we don't lose any students."

Aaron worries that with school closed, students with tough home lives might fall through the cracks. If students can't log into school or their parents don't encourage it, their learning could regress. Or worse, if children are being abused or neglected and they aren't seeing teachers every day, the abuse could go unnoticed and unreported.

Although Aaron said the county Office of Education has been able to contact 100 percent of its students, other districts are larger and can't say the same.

Liz Smith is the director of SLO County SELPA, the organization that oversees all the special education programs in the county. She, too, is most focused on ensuring that every child has his or her basic needs met during the school closures.

Throughout the county, Smith said school districts are reporting that about 75 to 80 percent of special needs students are logging in and participating in school. That number is OK, she said, but it leaves a pretty large chunk of students who either aren't regularly participating in school or haven't even been accounted for.

Distance learning isn't standardized, she said, and each district, school, and teacher is going about it differently. So Smith said she hopes to see participation increase as everyone becomes more comfortable with the new model.

"There is a lot of building the plane while we're flying it," she said.

But there was uniformity in the way the county's schools handled individualized learning programs (IEP).

Every student who needs special education has an IEP, a legal document that maps out the goals for a child's education and strategies for achieving them, along with ways to fulfill the child's unique needs. IEPs are detailed and created through a lengthy, thorough process by a team of educators, therapists, and children's families.

The needs and goals of students are different from a distance than they would be in the classroom, so Smith said the county's special education programs decided to do something drastic: They pinpointed each student with an IEP, looked at every plan, and amended each one to coincide with the new online and distance-learning model.

It was a massive undertaking, and one that Smith said wasn't mandatory. On April 9, the California Department of Education released guidelines for California special education programs outlining that IEPs would not necessarily have to be amended due to coronavirus-related closures. But Smith said SLO County districts were already deep into their amendment work by that point, and she doesn't regret doing it.

It gave everyone involved, staff and parents alike, some much-needed clarity at a time filled to the brim with uncertainty.

"There are some opportunities here," Smith said, "and one of those opportunities is that staff really do have this chance to work in a closer partnership with parents."

The way children learn changed and it changed quickly, but, Smith said, "that doesn't necessarily mean it's synonymous with a lower quality." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at


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