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Jay Campbell watches as his teacher leads a class session on Zoom. Photo courtesy of Najasila Campbell.

OUSD parents, teachers note limitations of special education distance learning

on September 24, 2020

Wake up at 8 a.m. Class on Zoom from 9-9:50 a.m. Read for 30 minutes. More class on Zoom from 10:30-11 a.m. One-on-one Zoom with aide from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. Another hour of class. School after-care on Zoom. And then an hour of behavioral therapy — on Zoom.

This is Jay* Campbell’s daily schedule. He is eight years old and has mild autism. Oakland North is using his nickname to protect his privacy. 

“He’s frustrated daily. He requires a lot of constant interaction to do the Zoom sessions,” said Najasila Campbell, Jay’s mother. “It’s challenging for him to independently work in between time, which makes it challenging for me as his mom, because I’m still working full time.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay and many other special education students across the country received hands-on, in-person support for their classes. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with any of 13 recognized disabilities are guaranteed an individualized education program (IEP) that provides “free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

But distance learning has brought new challenges for the roughly 13 percent of Oakland Unified School District students in special education, especially for young children like Jay. 

Jay is in third grade at Piedmont Avenue Elementary and participates in classes with neurotypical kids. His education plan includes speech therapy in addition to one-on-one time with an aide. But Campbell said she is not having him participate in speech therapy because she doesn’t want to add yet another Zoom session to his busy schedule.

Campbell often spends much of each day bouncing between Jay’s Zoom sessions and her own work in corporate communications. But for some families with children in special education, this level of involvement is impossible.

“This year, I have a mom who was like, ‘I have a third grade education. I don’t know anything about computers,’ and she’s Spanish speaking. So that’s a bigger hurdle,” said Christina Anderson, a fourth and fifth grade special education teacher at Fruitvale Elementary. “Luckily, she has other children in the house who can help my student, but like, I had to go do a home visit to go help. I went in person, put the gloves on, put the mask on…because if I didn’t, then they wouldn’t have access.”

Although the first day of classes was Aug. 10, Anderson said many of her students did not have reliable access to technology until the first week in September, when Fruitvale Elementary provided hotspots and computers to all students. She thinks the delay was due in part to tense negotiations between the Oakland Education Association (OEA) — the local teachers union — and OUSD that lasted until Aug. 24, when a new contract was ratified. Anderson is an OEA representative.  

“We started the year with labor negotiations that kind of halted things and made things difficult,” Anderson said.

OUSD special education teachers negotiated a ‘teacher work day’ the first Wednesday of each month, which Anderson said has been vital. But the bumpy start to the school year left some teachers unprepared to support special education students.

“When school started, my son’s teacher didn’t know he had an IEP, so we had to start from square one in a lot of ways,” said Jen Harper, a parent of a second grader at Howard Elementary.

Jennifer Blake, executive director for the OUSD special education department, acknowledged the challenges for families of children with special needs and said the district is committed to bringing students back for in-person learning as soon as it is safe. In the meantime, the district bought hundreds of items like fidgets, magnet boards and speech-generating devices to make students’ learning environments more tactile and to support IEP implementation.

Despite the new resources, Anderson is overwhelmed.

“The paperwork has increased. The workload has increased. The demand has increased,” Anderson said. “And all you want to do is help the kids learn how to read. It’s just so much other stuff on top of the actual teaching that makes it difficult.”

As a parent, Najasila Campbell agreed. She said she appreciates the district’s efforts but wishes her son had more opportunities for social interaction and fewer hours on Zoom.

“He is incredibly lonely,” Campbell said. “He tells me every day, ‘Mom, I don’t have any friends. I don’t have anybody to hang out with.’ He’ll go into the Google Classroom and try to chat and the kids aren’t necessarily responsive. He’s struggling with the isolation.”

With her husband gone for the better part of six days each week as an essential worker, Campbell is struggling.

“I don’t feel like I’m balancing it well,” Campbell said. “It’s either my kid or my job and sometimes my kid isn’t getting what he needs and deserves, to the point where I’m considering a leave of absence.”

Photo courtesy of Najasila Campbell

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