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.