TRENDS Podcast: Pandemic-Related Challenges to Special Needs Education

The TRENDS podcast is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Boulder County and KGNU. It dives deep into the community’s most pressing issues and explores the changes happening throughout Boulder County through the experiences of community members, especially those often rendered invisible by commercial media, to shed light on community challenges, solutions, and pathways forward for the county and the country.

Listen to the COVID-19 and the arts TRENDS podcast episode below:

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When it comes to education, right now all parents are having to figure out how to keep their children learning and up to date with their academic performance. School districts are doing their best to keep on teaching with the limitations of the pandemic and the new technologies in place.

The coronavirus pandemic has created numerous challenges for families with children with physical, learning and intellectual disabilities. Remote learning is just not suitable for these children.

The Macareno children live in Boulder and each have special needs.

That is the case of the Macareno family in Boulder who have three small children, Daniel aged 9, Gael aged 5, and Miguel aged 3. All three have special needs.

Daniel, a fourth-grader, is on the autism spectrum and his parents are thankful for the support given by all the therapists at his school, Foothills Elementary in Boulder.

Their other sons Gael and Miguel attend Columbine Elementary in Boulder where they also receive special education services.

Octavio Macareno says online learning has been hard for his son Daniel as it is difficult for him to pay attention.

Another complication of online education is how these students access therapies like speech, language and behavior.

Behavior therapy is the most challenging because it requires one-on-one time with a therapist but also socialization with others outside of the family nucleus, something that is not possible during the coronavirus.

A lot of specialists cannot visit one-on-one without becoming vectors for the virus itself. Some of the kids they work with are either medically vulnerable themselves or live in households with medically vulnerable people. That means they are not able to attend school in person at all. But it is incredibly difficult for them to access all that they need to learn, via the computer.

Ailsa Wonnacott, Executive Director of the Association for Community Living (ACL) says they have been fighting for decades to have students with special needs access the appropriate therapies and services. She says the pandemic has set their work behind by many years.

“So it’s very difficult to find ourselves back in this situation where we’re trying to, again, look at environments that are not designed with students with disabilities in mind and figure out how are they going to be included and how much is the community and the system going to step forward and be there part of the solution.”

The ACL is a civil and human rights group that was established in the 1960s in response to the denial of public education of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Wonnacott says the current situation means they have to fight even harder for the rights of these students.

“With the greatest respect for our school districts, who we have been collaborating and working closely with so that we get information, we also do have to push and remind them that they cannot ignore these students’ needs or their entitlement to an education.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures students with a disability can have an Individualized Education Program known as IEP. Nick Butler, Advocacy Coordinator for the ACL, helps negotiate IEP for students with disabilities. He has been finding out how difficult it is for schools to meet the needs of each unique student.

“So occupational therapists, speech, language pathologists, physical therapists for some students, that’s a whole team that we talk to when we negotiate an IEP. Now when school is happening over a zoom call like this, it’s hard to have all of those individuals involved. And particularly some of the individuals such as occupational therapists are having a lot of trouble because it’s hard to work on fine motor skills over a video screen, particularly when you have a student who has difficulty engaging through a remote learning situation.”

Eugenia Brady, Advocacy Coordinator and Diversity Specialist with the ACL, says that it is also having a negative impact on parents who are trying to navigate the situation.

“Our parents are exhausted to try to do everything, not to mention the ones who have to go to work and they (the students) have not been able to go back to school.”

Laura Rosas, mom of Daniel, Miguel and Gael, is experiencing this situation first hand. She says Daniel is particularly challenged trying to do speech therapy online.

Daniel Macarenos makes a sign at home during a KGNU visit

But Laura faces additional challenges with her kids. Daniel and Miguel exhibit behavioral problems, so they need behavioral therapy as well, and she has had difficulties finding a therapist that can provide support to deal with issues of behavior in public.

Richard Garcia who serves on the Boulder Valley School District Board of Directors says kids with disabilities who were already struggling at school are now being disproportionately impacted by online learning. He says that students with an individualized education plan need in-person contact to meet their IEP requirements.

“When March came and we stopped, when everybody went remote, it was those kids that were really, really left out, because I don’t know, there was hardly anything for them, because they were an IEP. How can you do an IEP [online?]”

But there is a silver lining for families like the Macarenos. Thanks to new available funding for full-day kindergarten in Colorado, Gael and Miguel can both go to school full-time.

A photo of an ELPASO event

The Community Foundation, through its School Readiness Initiative and its spin off initiative called EL PASO – Engaged Latino Parents Advancing Student Outcomes, had an important role to bring about this valuable benefit for Colorado families, helping to double full-time participation in Boulder County kindergarten programs, now available in all 35 elementary schools in the County.

But many parents of students with special needs are frustrated. In October a federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of two families of children with disabilities against the Boulder Valley School District. The suit says the district has failed to educate the district’s 3,700 special needs children while COVID-19 restrictions are in place.

BVSD says it is working hard to accommodate these students during these exceptional times. The school district has outlined its plans on its website.

In the Trends Podcast, we explore how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted access to education for students with disabilities. In this follow-up, bilingual panel discussion, our guests Bianca Gallegos, Principal at Columbine Elementary; Eugenia Brady, Special Education Advocate and Diversity Specialist at Association for Community Living and Richard Garcia, BVSD District G Board of Education Member discuss specific challenges experienced by families with special needs children who, due to the pandemic, are not able to access all their needed therapies, especially behavioral therapy which experts feel is impossible to do virtually. The panelists also reflect on the particular challenges Latinx families experience and provide guidance on how to get involved in advocacy for equity in education.

Watch the TRENDS Panel for this EDUCATION ACCESS episode below:

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