Clear Creek ISD, home to more than 42,000 students, is grappling with new hurdles brought about by remote learning and the coronavirus pandemic, including how to provide for special education students and families who need additional support.

As the district began the 2020-21 year, special education parents said they felt an initial disconnect when it came to information being shared between parents and the district. About 5,600 CCISD students receive special services.

Marta Brain—who is home-schooling one child with autism and sending another child with autism to in-person classes—said she wished campus-level officials had reached out to parents with a little more information about how the virtual day would be structured and how long children are expected to be at their computers.

Although Brain chose brick-and-mortar education for her daughter, CCISD phased its in-person learners back into classrooms in stages from late August until mid-September. The first weeks of the school year were stressful and challenging for the family as they navigated the brief period of virtual instruction.

“It’s too long of a day for kids to have that much screen time,” she said. “I don’t know what they could do differently, but ... I see the dark circles under my poor daughter’s eyes.”

Moreover, Brain said she and other parents of special education students are unsure whether their children’s individual education plans are being followed—or whether their teachers even have access to the IEPs—given the recent changes, and she hopes the district will make IEP communication a priority at the start of the year.

“They already struggle with transition ... but then not having whatever supports they might need—that can be a real challenge,” Brain added. “These kiddos, it’s their right to have these accommodations. We need to make sure their needs are being met in that way.”

Addressing new challenges

Meghan Whittaker, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said in an email that for students with disabilities learning remotely, the biggest loss amid COVID-19 has been a reduction in the services received. Designing and adapting instruction for students with disabilities amid the pandemic cannot be done until the digital divide is closed, she added.

“In many cases, the same services that were written in their IEP were not provided when schools transitioned to remote instruction,” Whittaker wrote. “So, while most students missed out on instructional time, we expect students with disabilities to regress even more without the appropriate and necessary services they had been receiving in school.”

Before choosing to send her daughter to in-person classes, Brain spoke with campus teachers to try to piece together a picture of what the in-person school day might look like. It is still unclear whether her daughter will be able to engage in the same extracurricular activities or incorporate some of the fun elements into her day that were there before the pandemic, Brain said.

While the decision was difficult, she said she ultimately felt the in-class socialization would benefit her daughter more than staying home, where she would be learning around her brother and his atypical behavior.

“We ultimately have to decide what’s the lesser of two evils,” Brain said. “It’s not going to look the same, but going five months without really getting to socialize a whole lot, I think that it’ll be beneficial for her just to be able to be around her friends and learn from her peers. ... It's been hard on the kids to be away from everything for so long.”

Savanna Stidhem, who has three school-aged children, said she chose to send her 15-year-old son back to in-person school because she had no idea how he would receive the specialized instruction he needs in multiple classes if learning virtually.

The family relocated to League City for CCISD’s special education program, which Stidhem said has been a largely positive experience. However, she added the district does not seem to be considering all schooling options this year, namely hybrid learning.

“I really do enjoy the school district, [but] ...with so many kids, is there anything else we can do better?,” she said. “I feel like not all the options are being truly seen, it’s just, ‘Send them to school; send them back, but let’s make it smaller.’”

Like Brain, Stidhem is also home-schooling a child with autism, and both parents expressed concerns about the social and emotional regression their children may face while away from campus.

“I’m at a hard place with him where he needs [in-person class], but he actually needs to be home,” she said, adding her son cannot handle the textures of face coverings. “I can’t take the chance to send him to school because he touches everything. ... [But] we don’t know how it’s going to work. He’s so far behind.”

Special education reform

CCISD is making delayed but steady progress reforming special education services, Director of Special Services Michele Staley said during an Aug. 24 board of trustees meeting. Before the pandemic, 15 of the reform recommendations CCISD received from Gibson Consulting Group were in progress or complete.

Staley and Steven Ebell, the deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said five recommendations remain; 11 were completed in 2019, and 11 were completed in 2020. Two of the five remaining recommendations involve improvements to individualized modes of instruction for special education students.

The department collected data and added new checkpoints and training this school year to measure how much a student may have regressed, Staley said in a Sept. 21 email to Community Impact Newspaper. Over the summer, the district spent time researching how to best provide instruction and services for special education students, including how to shift services virtually, she said.

With that information, the district purchased site licenses for multiple software programs to be used by special education students learning through Clear Connections. The programs make the curriculum more accessible and provide supplemental learning support, she said via email.

CCISD will prioritize relationship-building with its students in the first few weeks of the year, just like any other year, she added.

“It is the basis of all learning, no matter if it is academic, behavioral, social-emotional, or learning to move and interact with our environment,” Staley wrote. “It is part of our core values in CCISD!”

If parents need assistance navigating the Admission, Review and Dismissal or other processes, there is a parent resource center available for one-on-one help over the phone; the office also provides parents with training sessions on various aspects of special services to aid them in their knowledge, Staley said.

She encouraged special education parents to open a line of communication with the department if they feel their needs are not being met at the campus level.

“The special services department is here not only to support campuses, but to support [parents] and their students as well,” she said. “If they have any questions, we are here to help and if we do not know the answer, we will facilitate them in finding the answer.”