Parents of students with disabilities are approaching the start of a new online school year with deep apprehension, pleading with Palo Alto Unified to find a safe way to offer in-person instruction to their children.
During a virtual school board meeting on Tuesday night, special education parents described the pitfalls of distance learning — students who can't sit in front of a computer unattended for more than 15 minutes, students breaking computer screens and having meltdowns, students not having access the services legally agreed upon in their individualized education plans (IEP) with the district.
"The anxiety of my kid having more regression just sits on my chest until I can't breathe," said Christina Greenberg, the parent of a rising first-grader with autism.
But the unions representing the teachers and staff who would need to return to campus to serve these children lobbied against bringing back special education students in person sooner than other students. They argued the risk of exposure for the coronavirus would be higher in special education classes that require a greater number of adults working closely with students, some of whom need help going to the bathroom or with eating and may not be able to social distance or wear masks.
"Our special education teachers really want to be treated the same as their general education colleagues," said Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union. "They want their health and safety as well as that of their students to be taken into consideration. (They) don't want to come back earlier than general education teachers."
Baldwin said that distance learning has worked for some students with moderate to severe disabilities.
"I strongly believe we need to do as much distance learning as possible," echoed Meb Steiner, president of the classified employees union.
Special education staff presented on Tuesday their plan for this school year, which starts remotely on Monday after a spring that nearly everyone acknowledges fell short of what the district's 1,200 students with individualized education plans need. Students will have more virtual one-on-one time with instructional aides and the district will provide the agreed upon allotment of specialized services in students' IEPs, staff said. The district plans to offer virtual field trips and dances to keep students engaged.
"The challenges remain but our ability to serve students at a higher level has definitely improved," said Superintendent Don Austin.
Cindy Loleng-Perez, special education director for the secondary schools, said the district already has a model for safe, face-to-face learning for students with disabilities: this summer's Extended School Year program, which took place in person for two weeks until Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement about school reopening mandates shut it down. At the program, staff and students were screened daily, classes were limited to eight students and 90% of students kept masks on throughout the day, among other health and safety precautions, Loleng-Perez said.
Board members expressed support for prioritizing in-person instruction for special education students as soon as permissible. Ken Dauber said a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening won't serve students well, and that he and other board members are "prepared to do whatever it takes in order to support" staff in providing a safe, in-person experience for special education students.
"Probably for the sake of students, we need to bring special education students back into in-person instruction earlier than other students," he said. "I'm confident that with enough professional attention and resources we can make that safe."
Vaibhav Vaish, whose son has special needs, said it's not about the number of minutes of specialized services his child is legally entitled to.
"It's about the learning," he said. "There's a touch of irony for people to say that special education students need more adults and toilet training and two sentences later to claim that can effectively be provided over distance learning. … Please leave no avenue unexplored to return us to some hybrid learning."
Board President Todd Collins, whose son has severe autism, echoed the desperation parents feel when watching their children backslide.
"These are parents who are sitting with their kids, watching their kids month by month actually regress educationally and behaviorally (and) emotionally. They wonder what the future holds. They were already dealt a tough hand. It is such a challenge for them to watch their children sit at home and not be able to make any progress at all and in fact be behind where they were a year ago, not just educationally, but as people," he said. "I hope we can do everything we can — working together with our teachers and our staff — to try to do what we can, especially for the kids who need us the most."
Some special education parents did say they prefer a fully online model and asked the district to consult with parents individually to determine what will work best for their child. Others asked if schools remain closed and they need to seek support outside of Palo Alto Unified, if the district will reimburse them for those services.
The district is continuing to negotiate special education conditions with the teachers union.
Tentative agreements with both unions are set to be ratified soon and brought to the school board for approval at its first regular meeting of the new school year on Aug. 25.
Another support program for students is hanging in the balance until in-person instruction is allowed: PAUSD+, which would serve small groups of students, from simply offering a quiet space to study with consistent internet access to more intensive tutoring and academic help.
Parent Sara Woodham-Johnsson urged the district to, like special education, make this program happen for the students who are most likely to fall behind due to racial and socioeconomic disparities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
"This my great despair: When we unravel the carnage that is Covid, we will realize we have lost a particular subset of kids for good. I implore you to prioritize and value the need for educating these students in a way that they can access it and using whatever means necessary to get that done," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.