Parent voice: Supporting students with disabilities, even during the COVID-19 closures.

As an Oakland mother of a child with a disability, I have learned how to be a fierce and loving parent advocate. I know that I can’t always count on others to plan for my son, and to create learning support systems with his strengths and needs in mind. Now, amidst a global crisis, that lesson is more important than ever. 

My son was diagnosed a few years ago, and it was not until this year that the coordinated services at school and at home were beginning to have a meaningful impact. The necessary school closures immediately raised my anxiety about how we would continue building on his recent strides. As a mother, I cannot let his progress be stalled – or worse – reversed. 

So when my child’s special education teacher called on the first day of the school closures, my anxiety started to shift into hope. Her tone was honest. She was candid with me about the great uncertainty in how services would be provided. But her first few questions put me at ease: “How’s it going? What do you anticipate will be important supports he will need?” She clearly sent the message that we are partners in this work. Since then, we’ve spoken at least twice a week to coordinate services, such as speech, in creative ways.

These are certainly unprecedented times for our schools as they undergo a massive transformation in response to the COVID-19 closures. During times of crisis, it is how we show up for the most vulnerable among us that defines who we are as a community. We cannot allow students with disabilities to get lost in the shuffle. As we wait for news and decisions from local leaders, state leaders and federal leaders about official guidance for serving students with disabilities, our students hang in the balance. 

I know firsthand how parents of students with disabilities have long had to serve as powerful advocates for their children’s education and in this crisis, that becomes even more important. 

As parents we must empathize with educators and leaders who are grappling with a constantly changing crisis of massive scale. But our schools still have  legal and civil rights obligations to meet our children’s educational needs. This is the time for us to advocate around what is possible – both during the closure and once schools open. We must do so with compassion, creativity, innovation, collaboration and deep urgency. 

What can parents of students with disabilities expect from their schools? 

  • Parent partnership: As learning is shifting to the home environment, teachers should proactively seek insights and observations from parents on how students are doing to better understand what is working and what is not. Parents should request individual meetings with special education teachers to discuss alternative ways to make distance learning opportunities work for their child, share information about student progress, and make adjustments where necessary.
  • Collaboration: Special education teachers and general education teachers should be collaborating now more than ever as they design the future of distance learning and support home-learning opportunities. 
  • Continued services, where possible: During the closures, many of the critical supports that students with disabilities need can, in fact, still be provided. For example, counseling or speech therapy can still have a positive impact on students from a distance through virtual meetings, video-conferencing, phone call check-ins, etc. With emotions running high during the confusion of such a crisis, these routine services become more important for students to maintain routines, emotional stability, and to access learning opportunities. Schools should make an effort to continue to provide these services wherever possible.
  • Compensatory services: Currently the learning activities and work that OUSD has made available are not mandatory, graded, or submitted. If the closure is extended, OUSD may require distance learning. If that happens, students are still legally entitled to the services identified in their IEPs. If the school cannot meet those needs due to extenuating circumstances, parents should advocate for a clear plan to be in place for how and when those services will be provided to make up for lost learning opportunities during the closure. For example, families can request access to summer school through Extended School Year (ESY) once school is back in session.  
  • Innovation: Members of the disabilities community have long served as leaders in innovation in education. Students with disabilities and the parents and educators advocating for them have often led the way in finding new ways of teaching and learning that end up benefiting all students. Now is an opportunity to dramatically rethink how students with disabilities are served and to reimagine a new world where students with disabilities are at the center of instruction instead of at the margins.  

When this pandemic subsides and students return to schools, we cannot simply allow a return to normalcy. Even in the best of times, students with disabilities are too often treated as an afterthought. They are told to wait, while they struggle to access the kind of learning opportunities they deserve. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to rethink how we educate all students – with and without disabilities. We must talk about how students with disabilities will have access to learning opportunities today, at the beginning of the crisis.  The way we support students with disabilities during this crisis will set the tone for how we support them in its aftermath. The choice is clear: we will either continue with systems that marginalize them or we will be forced to think differently and put them at center them in everything that we do, build innovative bridges between the home and the school and reimagine what special education looks like in Oakland.Centering the needs of students with disabilities now will set us up to build more sustainable and inclusive learning environments once schools open their doors again. 

As parent advocates we must ask:  

  • How can we ensure — to the fullest extent possible — that our children with disabilities get the support they need during school closures? 

As educators and leaders we must ask:

  • How can we use this crisis to dramatically transform our schools into more inclusive, innovative settings that are truly designed with our students in mind? 

Be in touch at yanira@gopublicschools.org to share appreciations of teachers/schools showing up in ways highlighted here, to share best practices or share your questions and concerns. 

Check out the resources below to see current guidance on special education services during school closures from the Federal Department of Education, California Department of Education and OUSD

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