Disabled and special needs children slowly being let back into classrooms

Teachers Andrea Gordon and Melissa Stacy go over plans for the possibility of classroom learning, among socially-distanced desks at Palm Vista Elementary School in Twentynine Palms. Little by little, California is allowing more children back into classrooms, some because of disabilities and special needs that can't be met through distance learning and others in areas reporting success in keeping coronavirus case numbers down. AP photo.

Schools in California are slowly allowing more children back into classrooms, some because of disabilities and special needs that can’t be met through distance learning and others in areas reporting success in keeping coronavirus numbers down.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond today applauded new state guidance that will allow children with a range of specialized needs to return to classrooms in small groups, even in counties where schools are closed to classroom learning because of high rates of COVID-19.

Thurmond said it “speaks to closing disparity.”

About 97% of schools are closed for in-person learning, Thurmond said. But the new guidance, released Tuesday, would allow for a limited return for children with disabilities and other special needs, including English language learners, children at risk of abuse or neglect or students who are homeless. It applies to children in grades K-12 in groups of up to 14 students.

“Many of our students have severe and moderate needs around special education and other support needs,” Thurmond said. “Now school districts have a framework for how they can allow some very, very small numbers of students to return to campus.”

He said his office was studying the guidance issued a day earlier by the state Department of Public Health. ’“We’ll be in contact with districts about how that guidance worked for them, doesn’t work for them, and if there are concerns and things we need to further fine tune.”

One thing the guidance does not lay out is whether there will be enough teachers willing to return to in-person learning.

“School cannot open until it is safe,” California Teachers Association spokeswoman Claudia Briggs said. Recognizing the need for small groups of students is “a good direction, but should be an approach that is considered when the community conditions are safe.” She said the state’s guidance should include testing and contact tracing plans and will need to be agreed upon by working with teachers and parents.

Many special education students have fallen behind since distance learning started in March. Teachers and parents have expressed concern about students with autism, learning disabilities and emotional conditions as well as students who are homeless, in foster care and in migrant communities.

Jamey Olney, an English language development teacher in Modesto, said distance learning has been devastating to many of her 7th and 8th graders who include and a mix of Mexican immigrants, Afghan refugees and the children of migrant farmers.

“These students haven’t heard, spoken or read English going on seven months,” said Olney. Even if they have laptops, “there is no access when they don’t know the Roman alphabet, when they can’t spell their name in English, when they have never touched a computer before, when their parents are working in the fields or in the front lines, when 10-12 people are living together in a trailer.”

Olney is ready to teach physically distant in-person classes, and says the new guidance comes as a relief. “They are trying to do what they can to meet the needs of our students.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued rules last month that shut nearly all the state’s K-12 schools for classroom instruction at the start of the academic year. Schools in counties on the monitoring list can’t resume in-person learning until their county is off the list for the 14 days, except for those that obtain an elementary school waiver.

As of Wednesday, 109 elementary schools, mostly private and religious schools in San Diego and Orange counties, have been approved to reopen for in-person instruction after getting special waivers from health officials. The waivers only apply for kindergarten to sixth grade because health officials say those students are less likely than older children to become infected or transmit coronavirus.

Earlier this week, San Diego County closed its school waiver application process, anticipating all schools in the county will be allowed to reopen next Tuesday if the county keeps its COVID-19 rate down. Even if all schools in San Diego get the green light, many districts likely will not choose to reopen for weeks or even months, citing health concerns.

Elsewhere, some schools aren’t waiting for permission to resume in-class instruction. In Fresno County, a Christian private school, Immanuel Schools, reopened on Aug. 13 in defiance of health orders, leading the county to seek an emergency injunction arguing the school was putting its students, faculty and the community at risk.

On Tuesday, a judge denied the request for a temporary injunction, and set another hearing for Sept. 15. Fresno is one of nearly 40 counties on the state monitoring list because of rising infection rates.

Under the new rules, students and teachers have to wear masks, must be physically distanced and cannot mix across groups of more than 14 students. Any individual school can have up to 25% of the normal student capacity in the building at one time.

The guidance also applies to child care, recreation programs, before- and after-school services, youth groups and day camps.

“The state is trying to find a balance,” said California School Boards Association spokesman Troy Flint.

“Obviously the health risks we’re experiencing during the pandemic are tremendous,” Flint said. “But there is also a significant and harder to quantify risk of children falling behind academically, and those with special needs and traumatic family situations not getting the resources and support that can help them.” — By the Associated Press