SAN JOSE, Calif. — When COVID-19 closed schools in spring, instruction went online for 14-year-old Lyra Cherry, as it did for students across the country.

Unlike most students, though, Lyra — along with her twin sister Sophia — is on the autism spectrum. With classes online, one of her parents had to sit with her the entire lesson, to help her navigate the interface and so she wouldn’t simply get up and leave.

“Aides, teachers, behavioral therapists, occupational therapists — we were doing all of that,” said her mother, Shannon Cherry. “We had to make up for six or seven people each.”

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The coronaviurs pandemic has been especially disruptive for special education students, whose needs often include therapy and individual help from trained, specialized aides.

Now, with the benefit of months to prepare — and a new state law requiring that students with individualized education programs (IEPs) receive instruction that fits their needs, even during these “emergency conditions” — teachers are hopeful that fall will be better. But many parents aren’t so sure.

“For any challenge that regular families face, our highs are higher and our lows are lower,” said Diane Kim, whose 18-year-old son, Jeremy, has the most severe type of autism, Level 3 autism.

After a spring semester that should have been Jeremy’s last in high school, his transition to a postsecondary vocational program has been disrupted. To fill the gap, Kim hired a fleet of virtual tutors, working with them to create a regular schedule that approximates a school day.

“That’s usually how it is with special ed: We’re used to having to do things by ourselves and advocate.”

Kim says she will continue the tutoring program in the fall, paying the tutors through respite funding provided through the San Andreas Regional Center for people with developmental disabilities.

Some teachers and district officials hope that fall semester will go smoother than spring, even if schools aren’t able to come back in person.

One new addition is Senate Bill 98, a new state law that details the requirements for education this fall. For students with special needs, IEPs must now include a description of how their special education and supplementary aid services can be delivered using distance learning.

District officials, administrators and teachers from various Bay Area districts cited SB 98, saying that special education would be more rigorous and structured than in spring. Many also noted increased instructional minutes, professional development training and changes to make distance learning more closely approximate the in-school experience.

Some teachers sent materials home and helped parents create token charts for positive reinforcement. Therapists adapted to function virtually: Occupational therapy tasks like bouncing a ball or fine motor skills could be monitored over Zoom or assigned like homework, and walking up and down the stairs could stand in for physical therapy.

Still, says Indra Lynch, who teaches students with moderate to severe disabilities at Warm Springs Elementary, “it’s draining to be a special education teacher doing distance learning.”

“They’re audiovisual learners, they’re tactile learners, they’re kinesthetic, they’re social — when they’re by themselves, teaching distance learning, the students are not able to stay focused,” Lynch said. “If I was with them, I could find other ways to get them back or get them involved again, but with distance learning, the teachers and the parents are not on the same page.”

For some, distance learning is a challenge no matter what. Christin Tran, whose six-year-old son Jacob is diagnosed with global development delay, said she worried that Jacob will regress in fall if he’s not able to go back to in-person instruction. Through no fault of his teachers, according to Tran, “his attention span for Zoom meetings is nonexistent.”

“He has cried, threw tantrums and otherwise made it known that he cannot sit still for more than 20-30 minutes at a time,” Tran said in an email.

Tran is an essential worker at a local pharmacy, so it was difficult for her to be available to help Jacob through his Zoom lessons. Eventually, she switched her hours to mostly night and weekend shifts, telling her employer: “You make this work or I quit.”

Some teachers and administrators want to be back in person this fall, too. Jody Miller, principal of the Esther B. Clark schools — special education institutions in San Jose and Palo Alto — spent the summer developing a plan for in-person instruction. Now, with Santa Clara County still on the monitoring list, she’s applying for a waiver to let her elementary school students return.

“For our kids, the ability to be face to face is what helps them to learn,” Miller said, adding, “We’re leaving our most challenged population with not necessarily the services they need to thrive or make progress.”

Other teachers are wary of exposure. Teaching children with special needs poses unique health challenges, Lynch said: Many wouldn’t wear masks or understand the need for social distancing.

But if schools aren’t coming back in person, some parents say they will opt out altogether. Andrea Karp’s six-year-old son, Ethan, has high-functioning autism. He works one-on-one with an applied behavioral analysis therapist at the Learning Springs Academy in San Jose. Even if the school is able to reopen in fall, Karp says, Ethan’s therapist wouldn’t be able to accompany him, so Ethan wouldn’t be able to go.

Rather than pay private school tuition for virtual learning, Karp plans to pull Ethan out of school and work with the therapist on her own.

“Literally on Sundays, I’m prepping for the week like I’m a teacher,” Karp said. “I’m getting five arts and crafts projects set. I’m printing worksheets and finding books around the house. I’m ordering on Amazon — googly eyes and sequins and colored glue because he can’t see regular glue on a page of paper. All these nuanced things, and now it’s all on me.”

© 2020 The Mercury News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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