Meeting new needs: Clear Creek ISD adjusts to challenges for low-income, special education students amid COVID-19 pandemic

Within the first weeks of the 2020-21 school year in Clear Creek ISD, Marta Brain noticed her daughter’s morale sinking.

Her daughter has high-functioning autism, so she sometimes takes longer to process information even if she understands it well, Brain said. One day, during virtual learning, the third grader misunderstood classwork directions; although Brain was able to reach the teacher by email and quickly resolve the issue, her daughter was exhausted by then.

“It’s too long of a day for kids to have that much screen time,” said Brain, who is also home-schooling another autistic child. “I don’t know what [to] do differently, but ... I see the dark circles under my poor daughter’s eyes.”

CCISD, 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 families who need additional support to meet basic needs. Experts said the challenges of online school will affect families differently, and students with disabilities may face interruptions in specialized instruction.

Special services and COVID-19

As CCISD began the 2020-21 year, parents of special education students said they felt a disconnect in information being shared between parents and the district. About 5,600 students receive special services.

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

“These kiddos, it’s their right to have these accommodations,” Brain said. “We need to make sure their needs are being met in that way.”

Savanna Stidhem, who has three school-aged children, said she chose to send her 15-year-old son back to in-person classes because she had no idea how he would receive the specialized instruction he needs if learning virtually. Like Brain, Stidhem is also home-schooling an autistic child, 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. “We don’t know how it’s going to work. He’s so far behind.”

CCISD is making delayed but steady progress reforming special services, said Michele Staley, Special Services Department director, during an Aug. 24 board of trustees meeting. She added in a Sept. 21 email the department added new checkpoints and training this school year to measure how much a student may have regressed.

In early 2019, Gibson Consulting Group released a report with 27 recommendations related to special education reform. Two of the five left to implement concern changes to individualized modes of instruction for special education students.

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

Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said many remote learners with disabilities have seen a reduction in services amid COVID-19. Designing and adapting instruction for these students cannot be done until the digital divide is closed, she said via email.

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

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk, said online learning is not on par with in-person learning for any child. Gaps are exacerbated in low-income families, where parents typically cannot be as engaged in their children’s education and may not have the same access to technology, he said.

Social and emotional health

Regardless of whether a student has a disability, Whittaker said the effects of COVID-19 have been significant for young learners.

“[The pandemic] has disrupted their daily routines and their relationships with caring adults and other students at school,” she wrote. “They are missing out on the social and emotional connections that they’ve become accustomed to.”

CCISD now has two full-time social workers employed by the district, said Jeanne DeVezin, the district’s coordinator of prevention and at-risk services; previously, the social workers came to the district via grant funds.

A large part of what the social workers will be doing on campuses this year involves assessing the mental health of students, DeVezin said. Social workers will have conversations with the students about what they are seeing at home and what help they might need.

Outreach like this is all the more important, DeVezin said, because some newly economically disadvantaged families may have a hard time asking for help.

“We’re trying to do our best to do some kind of investigative work,” she added. “Some of our needy families have just become more needy.”

CCISD counselors also help the district dig deeper and find access points for at-risk families, said the district’s Assistant Marketing Director Eva de Cardenas. Once counselors have identified who is in need, they go through established channels with at-risk services to start providing assistance.

“We really, really pride ourselves on the counselors’ involvement, and they really do get to know these families,” de Cardenas added.

Wykesha Kelley-Dixon, the programs director for Bay Area Turning Point, said the changes in school structure, especially with virtual learning, create new stressors in many families, which can lead to emotional and physical abuse. There is domestic violence occurring within the district’s ZIP codes, she said, and the nonprofit predicts it will increase.

The nonprofit, which provides crisis intervention, shelter and counseling services to victims of domestic and sexual violence, recently trained more than 60 district staffers about domestic violence and COVID-19, available services and how to provide them virtually, Kelley-Dixon said.

“I do predict that there will be an increase of violence in homes...” she said. “Even though people are going to be at home learning, it’s still not a safe place all the time.”

Socioeconomic hurdles

CCISD officials said they have drawn on community partnerships in recent months to help provide families with basic necessities, all while bracing for a wave of homelessness as hundreds of evictions are handed out in the area each week.

The district set up a nonprofit, CCISD Cares, to help with disaster relief, and it is being used as a resource for food-insecure families and families needing school supplies, de Cardenas said. A survey was sent to all families in the spring, which helped officials gain an understanding of who needed home internet access and devices. In early September, the district received 1,000 new internet hot spots and will soon distribute them to families in need, de Cardenas added.

“Everybody knows that having internet access is just critical right now,” she said. “We will find the money; we will find the budget, but it’s always important to go out to the community and partner [as well].”

When CCISD community members fall on harder times and need more help, the district relies on the community to help at-risk families find ways to pay the bills. When an employee was recently facing eviction, the district put out a call to local organizations, one of which pledged to cover the employee’s rent, de Cardenas said.

DeVezin said her office takes phone calls from parents, helping them locate resources if their needs were not met after speaking with campus-level staff, and the office has kept in regular contact with at-risk families receiving assistance. The district anticipates families’ living situations to continue changing, whether they end up cohabiting with another family or losing housing altogether, she said.

“We’re kind of waiting for that influx of people being homeless,” she said.
By Colleen Ferguson
A native central New Yorker, Colleen Ferguson worked as an editorial intern with the Cy-Fair and Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood editions of Community Impact before joining the Bay Area team in 2020. Colleen graduated from Syracuse University in 2019, where she worked for the campus's independent student newspaper The Daily Orange, with a degree in Newspaper and Online Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a degree in Spanish language and culture. Colleen previously interned with The Journal News/lohud, where she covered the commute in the greater New York City area.



Judge Roberto Delagarza
Houston creates new system for low-income residents to address late court fees

The system was among the recommendations made by the mayor's police reform task force in their report.

(Courtesy NewQuest Properties)
Shogun Japanese Grill and Sushi Bar opens in Spring and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

An election official directs a car to a spot at the Humble Civic Center's drive-thru voting location. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas Supreme Court rules Harris County drive-thru, curbside voting can continue

More than 98,000 ballots cast at drive-thru polling sites across Harris County will be counted in the Nov. 3 election.

College of the Mainland in early 2020 converted a Methodist church at 1411 W. Main St. into an educational facility to replace the former League City location, which the college outgrew. (Courtesy College of the Mainland)
IMPACTS ROUNDUP: Floor & Decor coming soon to Webster and more

Here is a roundup of local business news in Clear Lake and League City

Up to 40,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas members could be impacted if a contract agreement cannot be reached. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
CHI St. Luke's Hospital faces potential contract termination with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas at multiple Houston, Southeast Texas locations

If an agreement cannot be reached, up to 40,000 Houstonians could find their local hospital is out of network for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.

houston skyline from afar
State of the city: Mayor Sylvester Turner warns Houston’s recovery could be slow, inequitable

The mayor touted the city's resilience but said that recovery from the coronavirus recession is starting to leave vulnerable communities behind.

Lane Graham at Hall Elementary shows off the observer he made in engineering lab. (Courtesy Clear Creek ISD)
Clear Creek ISD ignites students’ STEM passions virtually, in person through enhanced science programs

Liaisons for the Science Magnet and Elementary-STEM programs said the experiences young learners gain through enriched STEM education are critical in maintaining their social and emotional health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaks during BayTran's 21st Annual State of the Counties. (Courtesy BayTran)
Area county judges reflect on COVID-19 during BayTran State of the Counties

Though the event was held virtually this year, county leaders had a lot to say during the 21st Annual State of the Counties for the Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership.

Oct. 23 is the last day Texas voters can apply for a vote-by-mail ballot. (Courtesy Pexels)
Tackling Texas' vote-by-mail system: Applying, delivering, tracking your ballot

Oct. 23 is the last day Texas voters can apply for a vote-by-mail ballot.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Juergen's Hall Community Center in Cy-Fair. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Harris County’s early-voting turnout up 23% over same time frame in 2016 general election

The five busiest polling locations in Harris County have averaged more than 1,700 in-person voters daily thus far during early voting.

Houston City Council passed a tax rate Oct. 21 of $0.56184 per $100 valuation for fiscal year 2020-21, a 1.07% reduction from the previous year’s tax rate of $0.56792 per $100 valuation. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Houston approves lower tax rate for fiscal year 2020-21 amid calls for further reductions

The rate may still result in an increase for some taxpayers with the average homestead property value rising about 4%.

Oct. 15 was the last day to complete the U.S. 2020 Census. (Chance Flowers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Here is what 2020 U.S. Census self-response rates look like for 6 Southeast Houston, Bay Area cities

About six in every 10 residents in Harris, Brazoria and Galveston counties had responded to the 2020 Census as of Oct. 16, three days after the United States Supreme Court ruled to end data collection early.