A cool winter breeze ruffles the palm trees swaying on Bonita Vista High’s (BVH) campus. At the front gate, a slow stream of students makes its way through the quad and between hallways, settling into desks spread apart outside classrooms.
A school administrator directs students with a smile, who greet each other six feet apart but keep their masks on and complete health screening upon entry. They then turn on their laptops and log into their online classes, ready for a new day of in-person learning.
For many students in the Special Education Program and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEP), this is their new reality. Remote learning has upended their education and created new challenges and priorities. Amid these changes, administrators, teachers and students continue to navigate the intricacies of distance learning in hopes that Special Education students regain a sense of normalcy.
Navigating distance learning
With the last eight months of distance learning at BVH and the continuation of the pandemic, students’ entire learning environments have adapted. BVH students as a whole have had to develop new schedules and routines, including Special Education students.
Similar to the rest of BVH, the majority of Special Education students have been in distance learning since April and have continued virtually. However, due to the constant demands and the disadvantages of these Special Education students’ disabilities, various elements within their regular routines have had to be shifted.
For Moderate Severe teacher Darci Davies, she ensured that she made distance learning as accessible to her students as possible. Prior to the pandemic, she had her students use school-issued laptops for in-class activities such as Kahoot or YouTube videos. However, once the pandemic escalated, she programmed all of her students’ laptops to be linked to her Google Classroom in order to ease the process as much as possible.
Once the 2020-2021 school year began, Davies expresses that her students were more accustomed to the process of logging into class. Currently, when online, she meets with her students four to five times a day about 30 minutes to an hour at a time where they explore different subjects.
“[My students] have been doing really well in my class. My assistants join [the class and] we get excited when [students] get the correct answer. We have party horns [that] we [use] to get all fired up when they get the answer right,” Davies said.
Additionally, while Davies’ class focuses on academics, it also prepares students with moderate to severe disabilities from freshman to senior year for the Moderate Transition Program which works with students that are 18 to 22 to aid them in becoming more independent adults.
“Every Wednesday we used [to do] community-based instruction [where] we [went] across the street to Ralph’s [and had] the kids pick something out. We taught them how to use the self-checkout [which is] something that they could do on their own or with their parents. Also, we would go to Carl’s Jr. and teach them how to order for themselves. A lot of times they are shy and tell their parents [what they want], but [then they have to order themselves],” Davies said. “We teach them how to be mature and independent.”
Before the pandemic, students in the Moderate Transition Program were aided in applying for jobs at sites such as CVS, Sprouts and Marshalls, as well as utilizing public transit systems to navigate their way there. Rather than being on campus every school day like most students, they actively learned in the community.
Conversely, with the pandemic, students are no longer able to work at these sites and learn from their experiences in the community. Moderate Transition Program teacher Yvonne Curtis explains that when the pandemic began, she was at a disadvantage as technology was not something she immersed herself in and had to teach herself with YouTube videos.
“I was suffering. I didn’t even know my login for Google, for the school district or anything, so I was at a disadvantage,” Curtis said. “I hadn’t kept up on technology as much as maybe I should have. [I never thought] that this would happen where I would have to use a Google Classroom period.”
In addition to using Google Classroom as their main way of communicating with their students, Davies and Curtis both use a system of packets that include the following week’s lessons. They ensure that each student has what they need for the week in their packet by delivering them to students’ homes.
“My assistants and I would go on campus every day, or at least a couple times a week [to] make all these packets, and [we] would drop off and pick up homework once a week. [Students] had paper packets that corresponded with the online lesson and I felt like that helped the kids,” Davies said. “[This system] is the same kind of stuff we did in the classroom, but we just brought it into this virtual world.”
To guarantee the safety of her students, Curtis indicates that the packets for her class sit for at least 48 hours before delivery. She does not come in contact with students and wears a mask and gloves. Although this process is completely different from when students would come on campus last year, Curtis attempts to normalize the situation as much as possible.
“I try [not] to make any kind of negative comment about [distance] learning. I deliver the lesson as if they were in front of me and try to normalize the process because this isn’t normal. This is a weird year, but I have to make it as normal as possible because I may be the only person that they see online or my staff may be the only one person that they talk to, even during the entire [distance] learning process, which is terrible, but it’s a reality,” Curtis said.
Both Davies and Curtis emphasize the importance of engagement and meaningful lessons throughout distance learning. Not only that, but making sure activities allow students to be successful and motivate them to continue is a prominent aspect of Curtis’ lessons.
“I have 10 students with different needs, so [for] each one of those students inside of their packets or projects, we have to take into consideration that we may have to do a little more for them to be able to [complete activities]. For example, maybe they have a fine motor deficit and they’re not able to glue the eyeballs on [a] craft or other things. We preassemble some of it so that they can still have success with at least one or two components of the craft if they’re not able to do it themselves,” Curtis said.
Included in the many programs available at BVH for students with disabilities, students with IEPs have also adapted to distance learning. For instance, Fundamentals English teacher and Education Specialist Joy Melendrez values quality over quantity in her classes and reduces the amount of work she would normally assign.
“[Lessons] used to be [on] novels, and now [it’s] shorter stories and [in] smaller chunks [to] try to make it easier for students. As far as differentiating outside the classroom, a lot of my students are visual learners [and] audio learners, so whatever writing or reading that we have, I try to make sure that I have associated videos that I can show so that I can address all students’ needs,” Melendrez said.
Curtis, Davies and Melendrez highlight that social-emotional learning is one of their main focuses in distance learning. They do so by having more interaction online where they speak to their students during class or create outlets outside of class available to speak with them one-on-one about their struggles.
“My ultimate goal is to get back into the classroom, but also just to make sure that we’re meeting each child’s individual needs, and mostly social-emotional needs right now rather than academics,” Melendrez said. “Being home all day for myself affects me emotionally, so I can [only] imagine how it affects a teenager who’s going through their own issues and trying to get academics done during a pandemic.”
Adjusting to in-person learning
Nov. 5 marked the first day students with IEPs, including those with disabilities, could attend online classes on campus per Phase 1 of the Sweetwater Union High School District’s (SUHSD) reopening procedure.
With district approval for partial reopening, the BVH administration established two models for on-campus learning in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and negotiated protocols with teachers and counselors.
The first is an all-day program where students stay on campus from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and attend their online classes with teacher guidance twice a week. The second is a shorter biweekly tutoring program where students only visit campus from 2 to 3:15 p.m. to receive additional academic or emotional support.
Initially, the BVH administration reached out to school staff and community members to ask for on-campus support to facilitate in-person learning. Volunteers assisted in directing students to their desks, enforcing social distancing protocols and ensuring all procedures run smoothly.
Assistant Principal Esther Wise says BVH received an “overwhelming response” from staff and volunteers.
“We had [many] staff that said, ‘I’ll do it. What do I do? Where do I sign up?’ We had to say, ‘hold on,’ [because we had] too many [volunteers], but that speaks to how giving our school staff and [BVH community] are. We couldn’t have done this without staff, because I know for a fact that [in-person] programs at other sites weren’t as big because they didn’t have volunteer staff,” Wise said.
With the necessary community support and pandemic-related resources paid for by Title 1 and Cares Act funds, BVH prioritized students with disabilities and those with “D” and “F” grades for on-campus learning to support those most impacted by the pandemic. Approximately 80 students with disabilities regularly frequent campus to attend online classes.
“I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard,” Principal Roman Del Rosario, Ed.D., said. “There’s such a wide array of students with special needs. Two of our cohorts are students that [are] moderate to severe. Those students tend to need more support; some of them need one-on-one support. They have difficulty covering their face with coverings. Too many of our students with special needs are languishing so we have tried to prioritize [them].”
Some teachers recommended students to BVH administration as individuals needing additional on-campus support. However, BVH also contacted parents of students with disabilities or in Special Education Programs to offer on-campus learning services.
When senior Manny Bautista’s mother Vanessa Rojas was informed of the opportunity, she felt “happy” knowing it would help her disabled son, who struggled to stay focused in his online classes since the outbreak of the pandemic. Melendrez says one of her students appreciated going back to campus and significantly improved her performance on campus.
“She said, ‘Mrs. Melendrez, I just don’t know how [to do the assignment], it’s too hard. I couldn’t figure it out.’ So I walked her through it. I couldn’t get close to her, but I was able to tell her, ‘Go here, click on this, do this.’ And once she got it, it’s like she lit up. That’s when she turned 14 assignments [and] now she’s doing well in my class,” Melendrez said.
Parents signed consent forms requiring students to follow social distancing orders, including the use of masks, on campus. When students enter campus, nurse Paola Garcia checks their temperature to ensure they do not have symptoms of COVID-19. All students must also provide their names to verify they have signed up to attend classes on campus.
“I think everybody’s just so happy to be on campus and get the help [they need, but] safety is our priority; we want students to be comfortable [and to] have a positive experience. When it’s lunchtime, the students need to eat separately. Even at nutrition break, everybody’s still separated,” Wise said.
Students bring their laptops and settle in desks arranged along the hallways, in the quad or on grassy areas and begin their online work individually. Students greet each other with a smile, which “you see in their faces,” according to Wise. She says most students with disabilities come to campus for social and emotional learning as opposed to academics.
“From our special day programs, there are two groups and they’re the ones with the best attendance. They’ll come in after school and play a sport [or] some games. They even celebrated Thanksgiving, [which] culminated with a Zoom meeting,” Wise said.
Once in their classes, students stay connected and can ask teachers, usually four or five patrolling school grounds, for help with their schoolwork while staying physically apart.
Students have paper packets and class materials that correspond to online lessons, which they pick up every week at BVH, and work on arts and crafts activities or safe science experiments at home.
According to Davies, on-campus learning has kept students engaged. Despite the different circumstances, they have “made the best” of distance learning.
“I felt like [in-person classes] helped the kids because I’m doing it with them,” Davies said. “We did a lot of mystery science videos [and] experiments. I would get all the materials [and] drop it off [and] each kid would do the science experiment. So supplying all the materials and dropping them off has really helped [keep] them engaged.”
Due to the pandemic, however, Davies had to implement social distancing protocols into her lessons. Many students in her classes initially struggled to comprehend the implications of the pandemic, so Davies taught them new mannerisms to reduce risks of infection in their everyday lives.
“Even before Thanksgiving, we talked about how it’s going to be different because of the pandemic. [I tell them], ‘you [have] to wash your hands; don’t shake hands anymore. You’re going to do the elbow, or you can wave from a distance.’ So we constantly go over those things [and] they know that stuff. We teach them every kind of subject [and] life skill: math, reading and even games, like [playing] Uno or how to get on the computer [and] go on YouTube,” Davies said.
Because students are engaged, Davies feels that going to campus has helped improve their mental health despite many initially struggling to attend their online classes.
“They like to talk about it with the other kids who didn’t come on campus. They were like, ‘Hey, I got to go on campus.’ And everybody’s like, ‘What? You did?’, and it seemed to be a big deal that they got to come on. They keep asking, ‘We’re gonna do it next semester, right? When are we going back? I miss school.’ So it helped mentally with them because they haven’t got to see any of their friends in person,” Davies said. “[It helped] us as assistants, too, because we’re all close. It was awesome.”
In spite of the uncertainty and difficulties of the pandemic, Davies remains hopeful in seeing her students’ faces; they are “cheering” and “laughing” in solidarity, ready for the next day of smiles.
“We’re just a really big family. We all care about each other and the parents sit next to the kids [during class]. We’ve also bonded so [everyone] really cares about each other and [are] involved. It’s a great class,” Davies said.
Challenges and solutions
With the uncertainty of COVID-19, challenges have approached the Special Education department in a variety of ways. Teachers are dealing with technological issues, parents are having to monitor their children’s progress more closely and many in the BVH community are unsure about the health risks of bringing students on campus.
For Curtis, Davies and Melendrez, technology has been something they all have had to learn more about and adapt their curriculum for. As the last nine months have been fully online for most students, it has become the main means of communication.
“Some [students] are [very] adept at [using technology], and probably better than I am, and then there are others who struggle, so I’ve had to be flexible,” Melendrez said. “Some of them, I will make phone calls if they’re having issues with technology. I allow them to turn in assignments [written] in their notebook and [they] show it to me on FaceTime chat.”
Moreover, parents have also had to take on a heavier responsibility in aiding their students throughout the school day. For Rojas, distance learning has taken a toll on her due to the difficulties of taking care of her son.
“From March to June, it was super hard for him, for me and for the whole house. He didn’t want to log in, he kept saying he wanted to go to school. Then, I would text the teacher [to talk to Manny] and let him know that [the class is] going to be online and that he could see his friends,” Rojas said. “[There was] lots of crying and it was very, very hard.”
Rojas has six children, including Bautista, and expresses that she struggled to balance her responsibilities upon the outbreak of the pandemic. Usually, she left Bautista in school during the day while she bought groceries and ran errands, but the pandemic forced her to supervise her children at all times. Bautista spent 72 hours in a mental hospital because he was “jumping on cars,” according to Rojas, which further distressed her.
Rojas says teachers’ support helped alleviate her difficult circumstances, and taking Bautista to campus for in-person classes made him “really happy.” Though she continues to face the brunt of the pandemic, she expresses that she has adapted to her new routine and hopes that SUHSD can permit schools to reopen when deemed safe.
“I just hope this [COVID-19 pandemic] is over soon,” Rojas said. “I want my kids to go back to school. There’s a lot of [open] private schools. I wish the kids could go back to school but I also want them to be safe because you could get [COVID-19] from anyone. It’s out of control. I don’t even know what to think anymore,” Rojas said.
While Rojas has endured hardships during this time, Moderate Transition Program student Brandon Olivieri’s father William Olivieri and mother Salina Olivieri have both had challenges and successes.
“I think Brandon enjoys it. He doesn’t have any issues with it. I know sometimes it can be kind of hard because he’s not seeing his [peers physically], [and] he doesn’t socialize like he truly needs to be, so that can be kind of hard. [However], I think he likes the timing of it and the comfort of being at home while he does it. As far as myself, I’m usually at work when classes are going on, but my husband is the one that takes care of our son,” S. Olivieri said.
Additionally, W. Olivieiri feels that his son was more independent while in physical school where he had been working at CVS Pharmacy and Sprouts for some time as well as learned how to navigate the transit system.
“He does miss [things like] going out to lunch or shopping and stuff, so we can’t wait until all of that is back,” W. Olivieri said. “[With distance learning, there is a] schedule that Ms. Curtis gives us and it’s structured, and he does very well, [but] I have to sit with him at the same table so I can help when he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing.”
As the BVH administration began allowing select students to come on campus, the majority being students in Special Education, it raised health concerns for both teachers and parents.
In contrast to Rojas, B. Olivieri’s parents did not allow their son to return to campus when given the option. Due to various health risk concerns, they felt it was unsafe for him to attend no matter the precautions that the BVH administration had informed them of.
“We were concerned with the chances of him getting it and until he’s had the vaccine, we don’t feel safe letting him back in the classroom,” S. Olivieri said. “We have an individual in the household who has health issues and if he were to get it, it would be more of a struggle for him, so we don’t want that being brought in the home.”
Furthermore, the Olivieri’s stance on this decision broadened when Curtis had decided that she would no longer be holding on-campus classes. Curtis came to this consensus after Thanksgiving break when all of the BVH staff were required to get tested for COVID-19, however, students were only strongly encouraged. She felt unsafe and that there was a “gap in that safety precaution.”
“I am now going to wait for a vaccine. If they have me come on campus, it’ll be because they asked us to come on campus, it’s no longer going to be because I’m volunteering to come on. I would have to be mandated to come on campus, depending on the numbers. I am not going to sacrifice my life for a career,” Curtis said. “If I had to, I would take the leap, [but] I don’t want to take a leap. I am doing everything that I can to engage with the students and not go down that other path. I’m going to continue on this course of safety.”
Everyone has a responsibility, if they don’t want to take it, that is their prerogative, but other people are suffering because [they are not being safe]. I understand [that] people need to get back to work and that they want their kids in school so they can go to work. I understand also that parents think that their kids have to be in school because they’re depressed or [for] other reasons, but as far as in person at this point, I’m out.”
— Moderate Transition Program teacher Yvonne Curtis
BVH administration is still dealing with the reported COVID-19 cases from other cohorts on campus and ensuring the safety of individuals going on campus through mandatory health screenings upon entry as well as safety precautions in place. All instructional and administrative individuals on campus currently are voluntary, and all students have consented through parent permission.
“There has been no evidence that there’s been [anything] to suggest that there’s been transmission while on campus. [However], there have been students or adults that have been symptomatic and we have protocols in place that as soon as that happens, we inform those that are part of that little bubble. [Then], that cohort [has] the student or the staff members stay home until they either [are] non-symptomatic for two weeks or they get tested and test negative,” Del Rosario said.
To address the concerns of parents who do not allow their academically struggling children on campus, several teachers have offered individual one-on-one tutoring sessions. Melendrez is one of the many that have decided to do so and holds her sessions on the weekends for her Fundamentals English students.
“The district has authorized to pay [teachers] to do one-on-one tutoring via online learning [outside of regular classes], and that’s successful as well. [It’s] not as successful as in-person, but when you’re just working one-on-one with a student [online], they feel more comfortable turning their camera on [and] don’t feel the pressure that other students are there and are judging them,” Melendrez said. “I have that time to individualize and construct [with] that one student.”
Ultimately, BVH administration, teachers and parents hope for the academic success of their students regardless of the current situation and are optimistic that Special Education students and the rest of the BVH community can return to campus.
“These are the students who are most at risk [and] their teachers are failing them and I believe it’s important that during this pandemic, no child should fail. We don’t know what’s happening. This is a once in a lifetime event, and they should be given every opportunity to succeed,” Melendrez said.
Amid the challenges brought on by the pandemic, much remains uncertain.
Since the implementation of distance learning, Rojas and other parents have tried to adapt to the tribulations of remote classes with varying success. For Special Education students, their hopes to return to the classroom seem dim as SUHSD makes no definitive plans to enter Phase 2 of reopening due to rising COVID-19 cases.
Rojas believes reopening would provide the most relief to her family, though she notes other avenues like respite care work could be more feasible due to health precautions.
“To support my son, [he needs] to go back to school. What else could they do if they can’t open the school? I’ve heard of having aides to go to the kids’ house and work with them one-to-one. I don’t know. I just hope and pray that by next year, they’re in school,” Rojas said.
As a teacher, Davies believes many students are ready to come back to the classroom, especially as vaccine distribution begins nationwide.
“We need to get back to school,” Davies said. “[We have] a vaccine. The district’s done what it can do, but I’m ready to get back. The students are ready to get back. We need to get back to somewhat normal.”
Curtis, however, believes the health risks are still too great to reopen classrooms. She worries about contracting the virus and “felt unsafe” when she discovered BVH reported two cases of COVID-19.
“I will only say as soon as possible when it is safe. A lot of people think [it’s okay to go] whenever. When you see the news [that] parents are complaining about their kids not being in school, I would rather my kid be alive and not have COVID-19 than to go [to campus],” Curtis said.
As distance learning resumes for the second semester of the 2020-2021 school year, Davies believes parents can also play a role in helping their disabled children navigate remote classes.
“If they have the time, maybe sit and read and do the assignments with students. [Sometimes] they just need someone to read to. If parents [have] 30 minutes a day, let your kid sit [down], vent and talk to you. You may be struggling as the parent, [but] don’t forget, your kid is also struggling and not understanding certain things,” Davies said.
For now, Melendrez is focused on addressing her students’ well being amid the tribulations of the pandemic. She says staying home already affects her emotionally and believes that for teenagers who are coping with other personal or domestic issues, the toll of the pandemic may be worse. Her ultimate goal is to “get back into the classroom,” but she stresses the importance of students’ emotional needs during an unprecedented era.
“While academics are important, we don’t know what [students are] dealing with in their homes. My focus is to just provide support and resources in any way possible. I have an open-door policy [and my students] all have my phone number. They can call me at any time; I will reach out and help them. I think it’s a big deal to build trust with a student that they feel comfortable enough to call you and ask for help is huge. I hope that each of my students knows that they have somebody,” Melendrez said.