Providing distance learning for most students is challenging, as teachers and parents are finding out while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the challenges are multiplied for special-needs students whose specialized instruction and therapies have been interrupted by the need for as many people as possible to remain isolated in their homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which is highly contagious and can produce serious, even life-threatening, symptoms in some patients.

“But for some of us with our kids with disabilities, each milestone is huge and can take years sometimes to learn, but it can be undone so quickly.”parent/advocate Jodie Harper

For those students, an extended break from their lessons and therapies can cause them to lose ground in educational progress, which often is painstakingly and slowly gained.

Parent/advocate Jodie Howard is hoping a new coalition can brainstorm with districts for options to help provide opportunities for special-needs students in danger of regression.

Schools Breaks Affect Special-Needs Kids

It’s something she’s worried about for her 16-year-old son, who has a severe form of autism and academically is at the kindergarten to first-grade level.

“Each step forward that he takes is a milestone,” she said. “Where, for our regularly or typically developing kids, there’s so many milestones that we take for granted that are just natural parts of what they learn how to do.

“But for some of us with our kids with disabilities, each milestone is huge and can take years sometimes to learn, but it can be undone so quickly.”

With a break from school of at least four weeks, and possibly longer, she said, “there will be regression for so many of them.”

Several area school districts like Selma and Kings Canyon have already decided to extend the closings through May 1, while others like Fresno and Clovis will take it up at their next regular board meetings. Central Unified’s board will consider the extension at a special board meeting tonight.

School Closures Raise Barriers

According to special education guidance from the state Department of Education, districts are supposed to continue providing educational opportunities appropriate to each student. The department acknowledges that some are more difficult to provide at this time.

Once schools are back in session, education officials will need to determine whether compensatory services are required, the guidance says.

Howard, who is director of the BREN Special Education Legal Clinic at the San Joaquin College of Law, thought about how school districts might be helped to provide special education services while schools are closed.

She then reached out to local providers of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavior analysis, who in some cases already provide services to area schools.

Coalition Is Born

“Maybe they’ll come up with some ideas that may not be as effective as in-person therapy, but maybe it will help my son pay attention or get some benefit from it.” — parent/advocate Jodie Harper

They concluded that the best way to approach school districts was as the Community Coalition Against Regression.

Howard said she reached out this week to districts and heard back immediately from a Fresno Unified representative who expressed interest in a teleconference, which was scheduled for today.

By brainstorming, the coalition and the district may be able to develop ideas to continue delivering services to students who have individual education plans, also known as IEPs, she said.

“We’ve got a team of very qualified, creative people. I’ve worked with a lot of them personally with my own son, and I’ve seen the level of creativity, and how they have reached him in person,” she said. “I have faith. Maybe they’ll come up with some ideas that may not be as effective as in-person therapy, but maybe it will help my son pay attention or get some benefit from it.”

Fresno Unified Looks at Alternatives

District spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog said Fresno Unified’s educational resources include materials for special-needs students.

“Alternative methods of delivering IEP services are being explored taking into consideration the health, safety, and well-being of all students and staff,” she said in an email.

As for today’s teleconference with the coalition, Idsvoog said by email, “Fresno Unified has existing contracts with various members of the coalition to provide services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and behavior supports.

“One of our big priorities is making sure those families feel supported in the ways we’re able to support them, through distance learning.”spokeswoman Kelly Avants

“As we move from optional resources to a distance learning model, we are meeting with our contracted service providers to discuss a comprehensive plan for delivering therapeutic services to all students who require them,” Idsvoog said.

Clovis Unified Explores Options

In Clovis Unified, educators have been working to provide distance learning opportunities for the district’s 4,300 students who have IEPs, using phone calls, adaptive technology, or online, spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.

Until the public health advisory recommending 6 feet of social distancing and the state’s shelter-in-place order were issued, some staffers had been doing in-person work with students, she said.

“One of our big priorities is making sure those families feel supported in the ways we’re able to support them, through distance learning,” Avants said.

Some Regression May Be Inevitable

Families of special-needs children may need to resign themselves to knowing that there will be some lack of progress as well as regression for their kids while schools are closed for the novel coronavirus outbreak, Howard said.

“I’ve tried to tell clients, yes, as hard as it is for us as parents to foreshadow that our kids are going to regress and see that happening, we also have to look at the greater good,” she said. “Everybody is making sacrifices right now, some more than others, to try and mitigate the spread or slow the spread of the virus.

“And unfortunately, that may be part of the price that we have to pay, is that we do have to watch our children regress. Because that’s the way we can contribute to slowing the spread, is to forgo those services that can only be truly delivered for some of our kids actually physically in person.”

But, Howard said, she’s still optimistic that the coalition may come up with some options for special-needs kids that could slow their regression.

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