Six-year-old Xavier Cruz watches a film about inventors, during the statewide school closure amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many parents navigate the new reality of having students at home for at least another month under a statewide public school closure, students with disabilities may face even more challenges with online learning. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the closure on March 13, part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. It is currently scheduled to end on April 13. But Edwards this week announced that he will extend a statewide “stay-at-home order” until the end of the month, meaning the state’s schools will be closed at least that long as well. 

Many schools are trying to adapt, quickly designing distance-learning programs to make sure their students don’t fall behind during the closure. In New Orleans, some charter schools have started online classes, and the NOLA Public Schools district purchased 5,000 wireless hotspots with emergency funding to distribute to families without internet service at home. Many are also sending paper packets of school work to students’ homes. 

Students with disabilities, however, often work in personal, one-on-one settings with specially trained special education teachers and therapists. For them, along with the packets going out to all students, some schools have sent home instructions on providing special education services. Others have set up video conferencing so students can communicate with therapists and counselors. 

Parent Roby Chavez has two sons in first grade at Bricolage Academy. They both have autism. One, who also has ADHD, normally sees an occupational and speech therapist each week. Since the closure, Chavez and his husband Chris have been working with them at home. 

“I appreciate the tremendous situation we are in and everyone is showing great concern for the care and safety of our kids and education,” Chavez said in an interview last week. “I think the big question is how these services should be provided to our kids, especially if online learning is not the best type of learning for our kids.”

Chavez and other parents sing the praises of their schools’ teachers and special education service providers, who’ve sent home therapy advice along with school work, but he said the school’s administration has not been clear about what is required. Prior to the closure, Chavez was one of a group of parents who were critical of how the school handled special education services

Now, he said, he worries his first grade son with autism and ADHD is likely to fall behind without his routine face-to-face services. 

“It’s unclear to me as a parent if I’m qualified to do these things,” he said, when he wondered if his work with the boys might count as official services. “Because I’m not an occupational therapist. I’m not a speech therapist.” 

Special education was a challenge for New Orleans before COVID-19 further disbanded the city’s already decentralized, all-charter school district. The city’s schools are under a federal consent decree stemming from a 2010 lawsuit and monitoring errors by the Louisiana Department of Education appear to have extended it. (The day before schools were ordered closed, the NOLA Public Schools district cited ten New Orleans public schools for special education problems discovered by the Department during monitoring last fall.)

The district says if a charter group is providing any educational services it must provide services for students with disabilities. But if it can’t provide all services required by a student’s IEP, the school must determine which services are feasible to provide, keeping as close to the IEP as possible.  The state found just over half of parish districts in the state plan to provide online education, but the state did not ask Orleans Parish charters, the majority of which are considered their own school district, the same question. 

Students with disabilities have strong protections under federal law that requires they receive a free appropriate education, often called FAPE. The services needed to ensure that can be quite costly. Students with disabilities usually have an Individual Education Program, called an IEP, that acts as a contract between the school and family and outlines all services the student needs.

Chavez said it has not been clear to him to what extent IEPs are still in place during the school closure. 

“I have to say there is some great worry because there is so much ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s clear kids like mine will need a lot of support,” he said. “I think we are mostly looking for clarity.”

“Part of it is there is not enough guidance from all the levels of leadership on this,” he said, including his school administration, and up to the federal government. 

Asked how Bricolage was providing therapy and other special education services, CEO Troave Profice wrote in an email, “Bricolage is not working online nor are we following a distance learning model during this extended closure.”

Her response surprised Chavez. 

“That is not the impression we were given and are working under,” Chavez said. “Her response is confusing since we’ve gotten a number of materials that seem to be required by the school.” 

Profice’s email, Chavez said, “shows that the school lacks the leadership to be able to communicate effectively to parents who are struggling during this difficult time to maintain connection to our school, educate our kids and keep doing the work needed to keep our households afloat.”

In response, Profice said school staff is empathetic and have been in constant communication with families, including tailoring supplementary materials for students. Including mailing packets to families.

“It is not, and has not been our expectation for parents to take the place of our teachers,” she wrote.

“We are a school built on integrity and insinuating that we have not made several documented attempts to maintain a sense of community during this time is not the Bricolage way.”

Education in unprecedented times

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education in the early stages of school closures caused confusion, and some districts opted not to provide online learning for fear they could not provide equal services to students with disabilities. The department later said that was “a serious misunderstanding” and that the department “does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students online.”

The Louisiana Department of Education has encouraged schools to continue serving while being safe. In a release Tuesday, the department stated that during the closure, “school systems have been advised to continue essential functions, such as providing meals and offering distance education to all students, including students with disabilities, to the extent possible.”

In that release, Jackie Tisdell, the co-chair of the Department’s Special Education Advisory Panel noted the move to online services can be difficult for some students with disabilities. 

“It is important for all students, including those with special needs, to have the opportunity to learn even in unusual circumstances,” she said. “This distance learning environment brings new challenges in meeting the needs of students who require additional support.”

The district has also provided an 11-page document for charter schools to consult.

Several charter networks, including FirstLine Schools, Morris Jeff Community School, InspireNOLA and KIPP New Orleans Schools told The Lens they are providing therapy services, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy, over the phone or via internet or whatever the family prefers. 

Chavez questioned whether New Orleans public schools, which have been through hurricanes, flooding and other disasters that have interrupted schooling could have been more prepared to transition to online learning. 

Chavez and his husband Chris, like many families, have developed a daily routine for their two first grade boys. 

“The other day we were doing our own version of ‘morning meeting’ and one of my kids was conducting it,” he said. “He was acting like he was Principal Wilbern at Bricolage, doing the announcement over the PA.”

“It’s clear they are missing the routine. They are missing important people.”

‘Parenting, teaching, working are three separate jobs’

Juggling three children and her job from home, while her husband works as a family physician at Ochsner, has been difficult, Allison Cruz told The Lens. Their 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son attend Morris Jeff Community School. 

“Xavier needs one-on-one attention from me. … He can’t sit there and do self-guided learning. He’s six,” she said. “Then our daughter is like, ‘Mom I need your help.’ And the baby is being two.”

All the while, Cruz is trying to work from home while rotating the family’s two computers and a tablet between herself and the school-aged kids depending on which school program works best on each device.

“The teachers have done a really phenomenal job of putting so many resources online,” she said. “But it’s not possible to do it. I can’t do it.”

“Parenting, teaching, working are three separate jobs,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s son receives special education services, like counseling and occupational therapy, after being evaluated for behavioral problems. That evaluator also found he qualified for gifted services. Later, her daughter qualified to receive gifted services as well. 

Morris Jeff CEO Patricia Perkins said the school has temporarily suspended gifted services but continues to provide other special education services. Louisiana law treats gifted education as a category of special education services. Federal special education law does not. But charters are only required to follow the federal law. 

“We were able to talk to his special ed teacher,” she said. She said he’s struggling without his normal routine. “And I’m nervous he’s going to fall behind.”

In addition to helping the kids stay on track with school work, Cruz and Chavez said there’s an entirely separate challenge of navigating the online world.

“My kids don’t know how to use video-conferencing,” Chavez said. “There’s a lot of skill-building that’s necessary.”

Technology, or rather the teaching of it, is also a challenge in the Cruz household across town. 

“Now I’m sitting there with my 6-year-old trying to teach him keystrokes and how to right-click. It’s a lot of teaching on top of the actual teaching of this stuff. And that’s nobody’s fault, they would have eventually learned how to do this at school, but now we are at home. So it’s more stuff,” she said. 

Both families noted they were thankful to have computers and internet access. The district has purchased thousands of hotspots and laptops to distribute to students across the city who need them. 

“I feel like everyone has sent the packets and been very responsive to give the kids something to do but now what?” Chavez asked. “How are we going to track if they are making progress?”

When students return to school, their parents and special education teams will review and decide if they received services appropriately. If they missed out on anything, schools may need to provide make-up services later. FirstLine CEO Sabrina Pence said the network will evaluate that. 

“Upon return to school the student will be assessed on progress or lack thereof toward all IEP goals,” Pence said. “Compensatory services and/or an adjustment to services will be determined by the IEP team upon return to school as needed.”

Perkins said Morris Jeff families will continue to receive IEP updates. 

Curtis Elmore, the spokesman for KIPP New Orleans Schools had a similar response. “When this period of school closure comes to an end, we will follow federal and state guidance to determine how our supports in this remote learning environment will qualify as service minutes.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...