As schools close, disabled students lose critical care

When Long Beach schools shut down Friday, Mayra Garcia-Cortez knew it didn’t just mean a few days of missed classwork for her brother. It had the potential to undermine months of hard-fought therapy.

Jared, a 19-year-old with autism, cerebral palsy and 14 other disabilities, attends a specialized campus where he works on life skills and goes on outings meant to prepare him for vocational school after he ages out of his K-12 education.

As the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools scrambled to set up off-campus learning, Jared, who is nonverbal and struggles with motor skills, was sent home with a work packet that covered things like multiplication tables.

“Excuse my language, but what the hell is he supposed to do with that?” Mayra said.

Jared is one of the tens of thousands of students in Long Beach and across the country who rely on their schools not just for academics but for critical therapies and services they may not get anywhere else.

The coronavirus has disrupted the lives of almost every student across the state as districts have shut down, but for kids with special needs, the stakes are especially high. As the world reacts to the health and economic crises caused by COVID-19, these students’ families and advocates fear they’re being forgotten.

“This is a part of society that really gets left behind,” said 21-year-old Mayra who, along with her mother, has spent years fighting to get Jared better access to education.

Jared Garcia-Cortez, right, with his sister, Mayra Garcia-Cortez and mother, Mayra Cortes, left. Photo courtesy the family.

As school officials point out, COVID-19 has left them with an unprecedented and daunting situation.

In Long Beach Unified alone, there are 70,000 students, 10,000 of whom have Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which means the district provides them some kind of accommodation to access the curriculum.

Those accommodations can range from a student with dyslexia getting extra time to finish a test to hours of weekly therapy or a full-time aide for students who need constant one-on-one support.

For disabled students, especially those with autism, a break in routine or sudden gap in therapy can mean dramatic setbacks.

One parent whose kindergartener is on the autism spectrum said her son craves structure. She’s had to watch him “literally regressing before our eyes” in the span of two days.

“I’m lucky that my company is flexible and understanding of my situation,” she said in a Facebook group for Long Beach special-needs parents, “but it’s going to be a difficult 5 weeks.”

Since Friday, families such as hers have been left in limbo, with many saying they’ve had little to no communication from the district beyond an email saying special-education services would be suspended while campuses are closed.

“It put me on very high alert when those email letters were sent to parents,” said Priya Bahl-Sen, a special education attorney whose kids attend Long Beach schools.

Bahl-Sen works with the nonprofit law firm Hope4Families, which gives free representation to low-income families with disabled students. Because they can’t afford private therapy, often services through school districts are the only help those families get.

“Parents are just scrambling and very fearful,” Bahl-Sen said.

Education officials and attorneys at Hope4Families are rushing to figure out exactly what schools’ obligations are to disabled students during a global pandemic, something not covered in the federal law that mandates equal access to education.

“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” Bahl-Sen said, but she urged parents to be careful: They shouldn’t waive any legal rights such as mandated meetings with the district and make-up services—known as compensatory services—that could help kids recover from regression.

LBUSD, like many other districts, is trying to move all learning online while its campuses are closed at least until April 20. The district plans to provide laptops and internet access to families that need them.

But that may not work for everyone, something LBUSD officials acknowledged at a Wednesday night school board meeting.

They’re trying to get supplemental resources to special-needs students, but it’s going to take time, said Tiffany Brown, the assistant superintendent of school support services.

If the district provides any sort of ongoing education, they’re obligated to make sure all students can access it, Bahl-Sen said.

For some students, like Jared, who needs the social element of school and won’t be able to communicate through a keyboard, that’s a high hurdle.

“I understand school shutdowns,” Mayra said, but they’ve left students like her brother cut off from services they need on a daily basis. “How are they going to thrive?”

— Mike Guardabascio contributed to this report.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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