What does special education look like during a pandemic?

Special education families are desperate for in-person support. A summer program offers a test case for providing it.

Student work on activities from socially distanced desks at Greene Middle School on July 9. They are attending Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, which serves students with moderate to severe disabilities. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

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What does special education look like during a pandemic?

Special education families are desperate for in-person support. A summer program offers a test case for providing it.

Student work on activities from socially distanced desks at Greene Middle School on July 9. They are attending Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, which serves students with moderate to severe disabilities. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Editor's note: After Gov. Gavin Newsom's July 17 announcement that schools in counties being monitored by the state for troubling coronavirus trends cannot reopen in person, Palo Alto Unified had to close its Extended School Year program. The program moved online for the final three weeks.

Every day this week, as debate continues to rage about how and when to safely reopen schools, students in Palo Alto got off buses and out of cars, had their temperatures and symptoms checked and headed into classrooms to learn in person for the first time in four months.

These students are attending Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, which every summer serves students with moderate to severe disabilities, including autism, intellectual disabilities, and visual and physical impairments.

This year, however, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it's the only program of its kind taking place in person in Santa Clara County, according to the school district. The program offers a kind of test case for reopening schools this fall and how the district can serve some of its most vulnerable students face-to-face while adhering to public health requirements.

SLIDESHOW: Maia McQuarrie works with occupational therapist Minal Shah during the Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program at Greene Middle School on July 9. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Forty students, from middle school to postsecondary, are attending the five-week program in person at Greene Middle School on Middlefield Road. Seven medically fragile students are enrolled online. During the regular school year, they are part of the district's Futures and postsecondary programs for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

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This is lower than typical enrollment, Extended School Year Coordinator Laurie Garcia said. The Sunday evening before the program began on Monday, July 6, she received several emails from parents who decided they were uncomfortable sending their children for in-person instruction — as well as staff who decided they didn't feel safe coming back to work.

But families who did send their children to the summer program said it was desperately needed. Distance learning simply didn't happen in any meaningful way for these students the last few months — students for whom routine, structure, socialization and constant support is critical — and parents said their children's academic and emotional health suffered as a result. Parents said they were left to fill the gaps themselves while managing their own full-time jobs.

"For me, it was like a hurricane came and it kept coming," parent Sheena Aurora said of distance learning.

Student attendant Ginger Monson, left, helps Ava Villarreal use a glue stick during a class activity during the Extended School Year (ESY) program at Greene Middle School on July 9. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Her 16-year-old autistic son is attending the summer program in person — a decision she said she didn't make lightly, given the potential health risks.

"But he misses that social interaction. He misses that relational learning," she said. "What's the price to pay for not going?"

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School district staff worked for months to design an Extended School Year program that would comply with public health mandates, knowing that these students, more than most, would need in-person interaction and support. They consulted with the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health and local medical and education experts.

Each classroom is limited to eight students. They used blue tape to mark squares on the floor around each desk, a visual cue for the students to keep their distance. They conduct daily symptom and temperature checks of students, staff and any visitors (including this reporter). The summer program has an isolation room in case anyone shows coronavirus symptoms and its own custodian who deep cleans the classrooms every night. The hallways, converted into one-way paths, are covered with flyers reminding students to keep 6 feet apart and wash their hands.

The teachers and staff — including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, behavior specialist and adaptive PE teacher — all wear masks or face shields. Olenka Villarreal, whose daughter Ava is non-verbal, worried she wouldn't recognize people with most of their faces covered, so she donated clear masks for the staff. Other students also need to be able to read lips.

The masks were a major point of concern for the district. Would students with disabilities realistically be able to wear masks for several hours a day?

The answer is mixed. District staff asked parents to get their children used to wearing masks at home before the program started. On a recent afternoon, several students were wearing masks, while others needed gentle reminders. Some students cannot wear them due to their disabilities, including those who are unable to put one on.

The staff have been using incentives to encourage students to keep their masks on. For those who can't, staff try to keep 6 feet away and wash their hands before and after interacting with the students.

"It's a new environment," said Arshdeep Shinh, the program's middle school teacher. "It's not the same where I can step right next to the student and work right over their shoulder. I try to stay as far away as possible and try to give directions from a distance."

In general, these students, who thrive under structure and rules, have adapted well to the new health requirements, district staff said.

"It's difficult to try to do distance learning with them because they're more hands-on, sensory (learners) and doing distance learning can take that away from them," the program's high school teacher, Raquel Cuevas, said. "Being in a classroom, they're able to get back on a routine."

Last week, Cuevas took her students on a scavenger hunt for an art project. They roamed the campus collecting leaves, sticks, rocks and flowers and brought them back to the classroom to work, while a live stream of the Monterey Bay Aquarium played on a screen at the front of the classroom.

A live feed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium plays while students work on art projects during the Extended School Year (ESY) program on July 9. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Two of the four students in this classroom were wearing masks.

Cuevas is trying to create as many outdoor activities as possible, knowing many of the students have been isolated in their homes for months.

Postsecondary students, who typically focus on vocational skills, have been going out for local park cleanups. On a recent morning, two staff wearing face shields guided a visually impaired student down the hallway so she could practice using a cane to walk.

Bela Singha sent her 16-year-old daughter, who has cognitive delays, to the summer program without a thought. Distance learning had been a "pure nightmare," she said.

The district did not provide remote one-on-one aide support or physical education for her daughter, despite her requests. The burden was only eased by a case manager who went above and beyond for her child, she said.

But Singha was most concerned about the detriment to her daughter's mental health.

"A typical kid can pick up their phone and call people to stay connected to the world. A typical kid can get on a bike and go down the street and exercise," she said. "The social disconnect is the biggest challenge."

Rani Rambo works with Jordan French, a behavior intervention coach, during a class activity at with the Extended School Year program on July 9. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Villarreal also did not hesitate to send her daughter to the summer program.

"For me, the risk sending her to school is lower than just her languishing at home," she said. "My husband and I both work full time so that becomes very difficult. We fall under that umbrella of parents (who) use the school as not only a place of education but it's a respite for us, for child care."

She said Ava, a rising Palo Alto High School senior, had "no meaningful educational experience since March." Twice-weekly Zoom check-ins with her teacher were often unsuccessful.

"She would slam the computer closed because she's not understanding why is she home, why is her teacher one square out of 20 on a computer?" Villarreal said.

It's challenging to explain to a developmentally delayed child what the coronavirus is or why their schools are closed, Villarreal said. Her daughter would often pull up photos on an iPad of people she's not seeing or outings she's no longer going on.

Villarreal and other special-education parents said they hope the district allows their children to attend school in person this fall, but the district has not yet finalized its plan for special education.

Singha said it feels unfair that the district is discussing allowing sixth-graders to be on campuses in person to ease their transition to middle school but that there's been little communication about students with disabilities for whom socialization and interaction are also crucial.

"We tend to be a forgotten group sometimes," Villarreal said. "I do believe they're putting thought into it but it would just be unbearable if they decide that kids like Ava are going back to Zoom."

Quan Sims, a high school teacher in Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, wears a clear mask over her face while explaining a class assignment at Greene Middle School on July 9. The clear mask helps students who rely on facial expressions to understand what a staff member is communicating. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Another question in parents' minds is whether their children's teachers will want to come back to school in person.

"Parents are worried about, who will return and will it be enough? Will they feel comfortable coming back?" Villarreal said. "It's the world of the unknown."

In an open letter this week, the Palo Alto Educators Association urged the district against reopening schools this fall, citing concerns about social distancing and the limitations of in-person instruction, including for special-education students.

"Many students with special needs require personal help multiple times a day, such as toileting, and do not understand social distancing guidelines," the union wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than 400 teachers. "Students with special needs also have required testing which demands close contact with educators. Students in crisis may require interventions where staff need to be close to them. There are many adults in the room, which will make social distancing even harder."

All of the 42 staff working at the Extended School Year program this summer volunteered for the job. Several said that their nervousness about the potential health risks was outweighed by a deep obligation to serve these students.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.

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What does special education look like during a pandemic?

Special education families are desperate for in-person support. A summer program offers a test case for providing it.

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jul 17, 2020, 6:57 am

Editor's note: After Gov. Gavin Newsom's July 17 announcement that schools in counties being monitored by the state for troubling coronavirus trends cannot reopen in person, Palo Alto Unified had to close its Extended School Year program. The program moved online for the final three weeks.

Every day this week, as debate continues to rage about how and when to safely reopen schools, students in Palo Alto got off buses and out of cars, had their temperatures and symptoms checked and headed into classrooms to learn in person for the first time in four months.

These students are attending Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, which every summer serves students with moderate to severe disabilities, including autism, intellectual disabilities, and visual and physical impairments.

This year, however, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it's the only program of its kind taking place in person in Santa Clara County, according to the school district. The program offers a kind of test case for reopening schools this fall and how the district can serve some of its most vulnerable students face-to-face while adhering to public health requirements.

Forty students, from middle school to postsecondary, are attending the five-week program in person at Greene Middle School on Middlefield Road. Seven medically fragile students are enrolled online. During the regular school year, they are part of the district's Futures and postsecondary programs for students with moderate to severe disabilities.

This is lower than typical enrollment, Extended School Year Coordinator Laurie Garcia said. The Sunday evening before the program began on Monday, July 6, she received several emails from parents who decided they were uncomfortable sending their children for in-person instruction — as well as staff who decided they didn't feel safe coming back to work.

But families who did send their children to the summer program said it was desperately needed. Distance learning simply didn't happen in any meaningful way for these students the last few months — students for whom routine, structure, socialization and constant support is critical — and parents said their children's academic and emotional health suffered as a result. Parents said they were left to fill the gaps themselves while managing their own full-time jobs.

"For me, it was like a hurricane came and it kept coming," parent Sheena Aurora said of distance learning.

Her 16-year-old autistic son is attending the summer program in person — a decision she said she didn't make lightly, given the potential health risks.

"But he misses that social interaction. He misses that relational learning," she said. "What's the price to pay for not going?"

School district staff worked for months to design an Extended School Year program that would comply with public health mandates, knowing that these students, more than most, would need in-person interaction and support. They consulted with the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health and local medical and education experts.

Each classroom is limited to eight students. They used blue tape to mark squares on the floor around each desk, a visual cue for the students to keep their distance. They conduct daily symptom and temperature checks of students, staff and any visitors (including this reporter). The summer program has an isolation room in case anyone shows coronavirus symptoms and its own custodian who deep cleans the classrooms every night. The hallways, converted into one-way paths, are covered with flyers reminding students to keep 6 feet apart and wash their hands.

The teachers and staff — including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, behavior specialist and adaptive PE teacher — all wear masks or face shields. Olenka Villarreal, whose daughter Ava is non-verbal, worried she wouldn't recognize people with most of their faces covered, so she donated clear masks for the staff. Other students also need to be able to read lips.

The masks were a major point of concern for the district. Would students with disabilities realistically be able to wear masks for several hours a day?

The answer is mixed. District staff asked parents to get their children used to wearing masks at home before the program started. On a recent afternoon, several students were wearing masks, while others needed gentle reminders. Some students cannot wear them due to their disabilities, including those who are unable to put one on.

The staff have been using incentives to encourage students to keep their masks on. For those who can't, staff try to keep 6 feet away and wash their hands before and after interacting with the students.

"It's a new environment," said Arshdeep Shinh, the program's middle school teacher. "It's not the same where I can step right next to the student and work right over their shoulder. I try to stay as far away as possible and try to give directions from a distance."

In general, these students, who thrive under structure and rules, have adapted well to the new health requirements, district staff said.

"It's difficult to try to do distance learning with them because they're more hands-on, sensory (learners) and doing distance learning can take that away from them," the program's high school teacher, Raquel Cuevas, said. "Being in a classroom, they're able to get back on a routine."

Last week, Cuevas took her students on a scavenger hunt for an art project. They roamed the campus collecting leaves, sticks, rocks and flowers and brought them back to the classroom to work, while a live stream of the Monterey Bay Aquarium played on a screen at the front of the classroom.

Two of the four students in this classroom were wearing masks.

Cuevas is trying to create as many outdoor activities as possible, knowing many of the students have been isolated in their homes for months.

Postsecondary students, who typically focus on vocational skills, have been going out for local park cleanups. On a recent morning, two staff wearing face shields guided a visually impaired student down the hallway so she could practice using a cane to walk.

Bela Singha sent her 16-year-old daughter, who has cognitive delays, to the summer program without a thought. Distance learning had been a "pure nightmare," she said.

The district did not provide remote one-on-one aide support or physical education for her daughter, despite her requests. The burden was only eased by a case manager who went above and beyond for her child, she said.

But Singha was most concerned about the detriment to her daughter's mental health.

"A typical kid can pick up their phone and call people to stay connected to the world. A typical kid can get on a bike and go down the street and exercise," she said. "The social disconnect is the biggest challenge."

Villarreal also did not hesitate to send her daughter to the summer program.

"For me, the risk sending her to school is lower than just her languishing at home," she said. "My husband and I both work full time so that becomes very difficult. We fall under that umbrella of parents (who) use the school as not only a place of education but it's a respite for us, for child care."

She said Ava, a rising Palo Alto High School senior, had "no meaningful educational experience since March." Twice-weekly Zoom check-ins with her teacher were often unsuccessful.

"She would slam the computer closed because she's not understanding why is she home, why is her teacher one square out of 20 on a computer?" Villarreal said.

It's challenging to explain to a developmentally delayed child what the coronavirus is or why their schools are closed, Villarreal said. Her daughter would often pull up photos on an iPad of people she's not seeing or outings she's no longer going on.

Villarreal and other special-education parents said they hope the district allows their children to attend school in person this fall, but the district has not yet finalized its plan for special education.

Singha said it feels unfair that the district is discussing allowing sixth-graders to be on campuses in person to ease their transition to middle school but that there's been little communication about students with disabilities for whom socialization and interaction are also crucial.

"We tend to be a forgotten group sometimes," Villarreal said. "I do believe they're putting thought into it but it would just be unbearable if they decide that kids like Ava are going back to Zoom."

Another question in parents' minds is whether their children's teachers will want to come back to school in person.

"Parents are worried about, who will return and will it be enough? Will they feel comfortable coming back?" Villarreal said. "It's the world of the unknown."

In an open letter this week, the Palo Alto Educators Association urged the district against reopening schools this fall, citing concerns about social distancing and the limitations of in-person instruction, including for special-education students.

"Many students with special needs require personal help multiple times a day, such as toileting, and do not understand social distancing guidelines," the union wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than 400 teachers. "Students with special needs also have required testing which demands close contact with educators. Students in crisis may require interventions where staff need to be close to them. There are many adults in the room, which will make social distancing even harder."

All of the 42 staff working at the Extended School Year program this summer volunteered for the job. Several said that their nervousness about the potential health risks was outweighed by a deep obligation to serve these students.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.

Comments

Army Vet
Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2020 at 7:26 am
Army Vet, Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2020 at 7:26 am
35 people like this

That's what commitment and sacrifice in the front line looks like people. Enjoy your day Palo Altans.


Navy vet
Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2020 at 8:57 am
Navy vet, Barron Park
on Jul 17, 2020 at 8:57 am
17 people like this

Thank you for your service! You are absolutely right!


Kimberly Eng Lee
Gunn High School
on Jul 17, 2020 at 10:38 am
Kimberly Eng Lee, Gunn High School
on Jul 17, 2020 at 10:38 am
29 people like this

Sincerest thanks to our Special Education teachers and aides who responded to these essential needs.


SG
Midtown
on Jul 17, 2020 at 11:21 am
SG, Midtown
on Jul 17, 2020 at 11:21 am
19 people like this

Wonderful to see the commitment. The county should address this in other districts as well. Supporting children with disabilities has to be an essential service.


Olenka Villarreal
Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 11:57 am
Olenka Villarreal, Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 11:57 am
22 people like this

For these students it's important to consider their develpmental, rather than chronological, ages when creating a fall plan. Returning elementary students to an in-person experience is often discussed but Ava is one (of many) who functions at a much lower developmental level. While she is a high schooler, she functions at a 1-2 year old level, and only responds to in-person teaching.

I urge the district to please consider the learning levels of their special education students when finalzing their plans. The many precautions being taken during our summer session show me that it IS possible to provide a safe classroom and accommodate the learning needs of these students. Another minute of distance learning would simply be unbearable for many of these kids ... and for us parents.


Olenka Villarreal
Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:03 pm
Olenka Villarreal, Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:03 pm
23 people like this

P.S. And yes, HUGE thanks to the teachers, aides, and staff who have come forward to teach this summer. Special thanks to Ms. Sims for trying so hard to make each day a magical one. Ava and I are profoundly grateful to have these weeks of in-person learning!


teacher safety
College Terrace
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:07 pm
teacher safety, College Terrace
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:07 pm
18 people like this

Teachers who are getting this close to students and working in a room with un-masked students should be wearing N95 masks and facial shields for their own safety.


Aesculus CA
Ventura
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:36 pm
Aesculus CA, Ventura
on Jul 17, 2020 at 12:36 pm
16 people like this

Looks like schools in Santa Clara County must be online only per Gov. Newsom's announcement today (7/17) until our county stays off the watch list for 14 days.

We ALL need to stay home, wear masks, avoid gatherings and reduce our case numbers so our kids and teachers can safely return to school!


Staff AND student safety
Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 1:28 pm
Staff AND student safety , Community Center
on Jul 17, 2020 at 1:28 pm
21 people like this

To show photos of staff not being able to follow the social distancing guidelines discredits the claim that this is an appropriate and safe response to the barriers faced by our special education students. This article is missing important voices and factual information about covid spread and risk. Sending appreciation to educators who all worked overtime last spring to support students and families in very meaningful ways. I see you.


The governor just issued an order
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2020 at 2:36 pm
The governor just issued an order, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 17, 2020 at 2:36 pm
12 people like this

The bruhaha over online learning is moot. The governor has issued a statewide order. No returning to school this fall. Good call! Countries that opened schools saw spikes in Covid spread.


Sense and sensibility
Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 17, 2020 at 2:55 pm
Sense and sensibility, Palo Alto Hills
on Jul 17, 2020 at 2:55 pm
16 people like this

Governor Newsom has chosen science. Thank goodness. Now if everyone can continue wearing a mask and we can continue testing with a quick turn around maybe we can all return to school in the later in the fall. It’s going to be weird not meeting my students in person.


Parent
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 17, 2020 at 3:32 pm
Parent, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 17, 2020 at 3:32 pm
20 people like this

This is not the place to gloat about Newsom‘s order. It may be the right decision, but please recognize that this pandemic is a tragedy for this population of kids and their families. My son gets up every morning and asks, “School broken? People sick?“


Special Ed Mom
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 18, 2020 at 12:49 pm
Special Ed Mom, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 18, 2020 at 12:49 pm
1 person likes this

How about the younger special ed kids? Why weren’t they offered in-person summer school? They are in great need of in-person learning.


SpED worker
another community
on Jul 20, 2020 at 12:31 pm
SpED worker, another community
on Jul 20, 2020 at 12:31 pm
14 people like this

I can't imagine being a parent of someone with significant behavioral issues, and not being able to rely on the school to give them a break by taking them for a few hours, but if they reopened too soon and someone (student, teacher or paraprofessional) got sick then they'd end up having to close again. This could cause the people around that infected person to demand change and accountability for creating the situation in the first place. It's a rock and a hard place situation.


Grossly Ignored
another community
on Jul 22, 2020 at 2:33 pm
Grossly Ignored , another community
on Jul 22, 2020 at 2:33 pm
2 people like this

The fact that the Special Education population has been GROSSLY ignored from birth to elderly, is really just infuriating. Not once have I heard anyone address it, besides quickly saying special needs under the umbrella of Mental Health. This is an outrage and I am surprised it has not been addressed more in the Media realm, and through protest. Many can't get out to get tested, or can tolerate a test up the nose, and many are needing services that just can't do justice through a computer screen. So many questions and so many concerns and my heart breaks for those with special needs and their families.
There are many questions and I don't have the answers but it would be nice to at least see officials and those who are addressing the community on a regular basis actually address the whole community and address the fact that they are looking at ideas on how to help and better meet their needs.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2020 at 3:22 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 22, 2020 at 3:22 pm
1 person likes this

Posted by Grossly Ignored, a resident of another community

>> The fact that the Special Education population has been GROSSLY ignored from birth to elderly

I know it is difficult to believe, but, as recently as 15 years ago, PAUSD was known for *both* its Special Ed programs and its academic strength. Both, at the same time. For some reason, decline has set in. Oh well, I guess it had to happen sooner or later. Or,

"He song; she pleyde; he tolde tale of Wade.
But at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
She took hir leve, and nedes wolde wende."


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