Bay Area Parents of Special Needs Students Coping With Online Learning

By Tabitha Remington, CONTRIBUTOR

As the new year started, COVID-19 flooded the world forcing everyday life to come to a halt. California Governor, Gavin Newsom, declared a shelter in place order on March 19th, requiring people to stay home and shut down non-essential jobs, parks, beaches, and schools, in an effort to prevent contact with others and potential spreading of the virus. Californians were forced to accept the new reality of living their lives online. For some this meant, celebrating birthdays and holidays virtually, and for others, it meant working from home. However, for students, it meant they would be quickly transitioning to online learning.
Shortly after the shelter in place order was announced, school districts all across Bay area counties began shutting down and adjusting their classes online. Some K-12 schools have excelled in this transition, providing students with laptops, tablets, and other materials to continue learning online, while other schools have been struggling to assist their students with the necessary resources to continue their learning from home. Parents of students with special needs have been especially concerned with this new normal because some of their children rely on interaction with aids and other assistance to help them with their academics.
A local Hayward resident, and mom, Christine Weavil, has two sons with learning disabilities; Nicholas, age 16, and Benjamin age 14. Both of her boys have ADHD and her oldest son Nicholas has Aspergers as well. While her sons haven’t struggled very much academically, Weavil says that transitioning to online learning was a bit difficult for them at first.
“With ADHD, it’s having that routine you know? It benefited them, they were doing really well,” says Weavil. “The switch to distance learning is the biggest thing, that loss of routine, not having to get out of bed at 7 o’clock to get to school by a certain time, and knowing that you’re going to have classes every day and homework. That’s been kind of difficult especially for my 16-year-old.”
Weavil’s sons attend public schools in Hayward Unified School District. She mentioned that it took their schools a couple of weeks to get distance learning up and running because of the extra work that needed to be done to ensure that students would be able to continue their learning from home. Schools needed to secure Chromebook laptops and other devices, along with stable internet connections for students whose families were not fortunate enough to already have those factors in place before the pandemic hit.
Hayward Unified School District has tried to provide their students with enough resources to continue their learning from home. They have been proactive in posting guides for parents on their website, These guides include “how to’s”, that inform parents on how to secure a Chromebook from their school for their children, and how to access online learning tools such as Google Classroom, student’s grading system, Zoom video chat, and other sites that are offering art education. They also provide parents with a contact list of companies that are offering free internet access to families in need.
Weavil says that once schools were up and running again, her sons had a much easier time getting back into a routine and adjusting to online learning. With the added benefit of being a teacher herself, her boys have been fortunate to have someone there with them to guide them through the different tools that are now being used in students’ learning. However, other parents haven’t been so lucky.
Alondra R., a behavioral analyst for children with autism in the East Bay region, said that some of the families she works with having a much harder time adjusting to this change. With social economics being a major factor, families have been struggling to balance teaching their children from home, and putting food on the table. With social distancing in place, Alondra says that some families are no longer able to work and some are having to rely on one parent’s income rather than two. She added that some of these children with autism come from households where English is not the primary language. Even though these families have been provided with devices to continue learning online, some parents have little to no experience using these programs and are having a hard time navigating these sites because they are not knowledgeable. She went on to say that with some families having multiple children in the home, and some of those children requiring more assistance, this has made it more difficult to effectively teach without any prior training.
“Being home all the time has affected these children’s behavior, they are in a new environment of learning,” Alondra said. She works with autistic children in their homes on day to day activities, two to three hours at a time, to improve behavior conditions such as verbal skills, social cues, and time management. She says she has noticed that the change to the learning environment of going from being in school to now being at home makes it difficult for these children to get back into a routine. She added that these parents want them to have a set schedule, but they are having a hard time implementing one when they aren’t used to teaching their kids and have relied on the help from assistance programs at their schools.
Not all children with disabilities require specialized instruction. Those who do are evaluated to determine what type of plan is needed to assist them academically. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides free public education and assistance to students based on their needs. According to this act, children are evaluated to determine which type of plan they need. These plans are either an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504. An IEP is a written document that outlines a plan for students with disabilities, to ensure they are receiving specialized instruction and other related services in school depending on their individual needs. A 504 outlines a plan that will provide students with disabilities accommodations to help them excel academically.
“Thank goodness my sons’ situations are not as severe as they’ve only ever necessitated a 504, and they are lucky to have a teacher as a mom that can help them out as well. I know we are really fortunate. There are a lot of other kids that unfortunately, once they went to distance learning it was like the school year was over because without those same structures that they would get, like children who have pair educators and things like that. It’s unfortunate for those kids, it’s really them who are missing out the most.” says Weavil. Her sons Nicholas and Benjamin 504’s provide them with accommodations in the classroom, like preferential seating, assistance with organization, and additional time to complete assignments, all of which are not really affected by distance learning nor the new grading policy.
Since transitioning to online learning, school districts in the Bay area grades 6-12th have changed their grading policies to credit/no credit rather than using the traditional grading scale. Hayward Unified School District is among those who chose to participate in this change. “It’s a matter of equity,” says Weavil, adding, that since teachers cannot be 100 percent in charge of students’ learning environment at home, it is unfair to hold these children and their parents to the same expectations as a teacher would be held to in a classroom setting when this is all new for everyone.
“It’s like we didn’t know how to juggle and we’re given chainsaws and being told to juggle,” says Weavil. Being a teacher and a parent she says she is able to see both sides of the situation. She is not only right there with her children at home helping them with school but she also sees the flip side being a teacher providing online learning to her students in her own classes.
Weavil works in Fremont at a private Catholic school and says that because they are a smaller school and they are private, they did not have very many cases where students lacked technological devices in the home which would have required them to wait to be provided with these devices from the school in order to continue online learning. She also notes that her school was able to get up and running with online classes within two days of the shutdown because their students were already familiar with the tools used such as Google Classroom and Zoom video chat since it was previously incorporated into their learning. Having prior knowledge made the transition for her students easier.
As Governor Newsom has extended the shelter in place order for the second time to the end of May, there is uncertainty as to whether or not the school will resume as usual in the fall. Weavil expressed her concern about what the future holds for the following school year.
“I don’t know what I would do if I had to start the year with virtual teaching,” says Weavil. “You can’t set up the kind of expectations about behavior and consequences. There’s none of that if you had to do that over virtual teaching and then in October you get the virtual okay, ‘oh we can all be back in the classroom all together again’, it’d be like starting the school year all over again”