Ibar client Teal Phillips navigates rigors of distance learning

 In Special Needs Trust

Pandemic robs many special-needs students of hands-on learning and in-person contact. For Chatsworth High senior Teal Phillips, not seeing friends and missing dance class are especially tough.

By  | tfattal@scng.com | Daily News

Teal Phillips’ mom wakes her each morning at 7 a.m., though she won’t log on to her first online class for a couple of hours.

Los Angeles Unified School District students, teachers and families are adjusting to their return to distance learning this semester amid the resurgent coronavirus pandemic in Los Angeles County. The Chatsworth High senior’s morning routine is unlike her peers’, however.

Teal has cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair and is nonverbal.

Her mother, Jasmine Gonzalez, prepares 17-year-old Teal for school each day at home, completing a checklist that includes dressing, feeding, connecting to e-devices and computers and helping her daughter into braces for her feet.

“It’s hard,” Gonzalez said, a working mother. She has two other children living at home who are distance-learning themselves.

All of Teal’s communication and school work is performed via a computer system called Tobii, which allows her to navigate systems with eye direction.

“She’s very good at it,” said Gonzalez.

Teal is one of 62,000 students enrolled in LAUSD’s special-education program, according to the district’s data from the 2019-20 school year. There are 40 special-needs students in Chatsworth High’s alternate curriculum, overseen by Eric Peres, who’s taught in LAUSD for 20 years.

In the pre-COVID days, a typical day for students learning from Peres and his team would include vocational and functional skill teaching, most of it in-person and much of it hands-on.

Some days might include trips off campus so students with physical challenges can be better acclimated with every-day activities and responsibilities.

The alternate curriculum classroom is equipped with a laundry machine, a cash register and even a coffee cart, all tools a student may have to master in the day-to-day world.

Distance learning has complicated those methods, to say the least.

“We have a wide range of disabilities and functioning students,” Peres said. “Special education students learn best with hands-on experience and engagement, not on a computer. (Distance learning) is extremely challenging for everyone involved.”

Since March, Teal hasn’t been able to attend those classes. Teal misses the in-person instruction from Peres, and from one of her favorite teachers, Eileen Alcorn.

She also cannot interact with her fellow alternate-curriculum classmates.

“The distance learning is hard for her emotionally,” Gonzalez said. “The (lack of a) social aspect is very impacting.”

During the day, Teal has to be moved from her wheelchair to a stander to help with blood flow and muscle usage. At school, she would spend time in her stander every day. At home, Gonzalez aims to get Teal into the stander three times a week.

“The stander is definitely not her favorite thing, but when she’s at school and engaging, her attitude is different,” said Gonzalez. “Being stuck at home, she becomes irritable and it’s difficult.”

Turning hands-on experiences and focused repetition into virtual lessons at home hasn’t been easy for teachers or students.

Distance learning is essentially split into two facets: synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

Synchronous teaching is when the teacher and students are all on the computer at once during a lesson, communicating with one another as appropriate.

When a teacher posts an assignment online for the student to check and complete on their own without simultaneous instruction, that’s asynchronous teaching.

Both can be especially difficult for special-education students.

“It’s hard for any teenager to focus on a computer for multiple hours at a time,” Peres said. “The stress and change of routine can create emotional and behavioral issues.”

Peres says special-needs students can lack coping skills much of the time. For some, that can result frustration, anger or depression. In some cases, students act out physically when frustrated, potentially striking siblings, parents or themselves.

“It can be dangerous,” Peres said.

Assignments posted for students to complete on their own usually means a parent or other person is needed to help the student navigate to the document or to help complete the assignment.

“Parents have a lot of responsibility,” Peres added.

Teal has experienced her own challenges. “She tells me she’s depressed,” her mother said. “She tells me she misses her friends and teachers.”

Teal loves cheerleading. And she loves dance. She hasn’t been able to do either since March.

A dance studio in West Hills called Carousel provides a class every Saturday for those with disabilities. Volunteer cheerleaders from local high schools assist with the lessons.

Those classes are canceled for now, casualties of COVID.

Chatsworth High special education student Teal Phillips, 17, dancing at Carousel Dance Studio in West Hills on a Saturday afternoon. (Photo courtesy of Jasmine Gonzalez)

“We would go every Saturday,” said Gonzalez. “Never missed.”

Teal wants badly to return to her pre-pandemic routine. She want to be back on campus. It’s unclear when that will happen.

L.A. County public health officials have noted over the past week that the county now meets five of the six criteria needed to fall off the state’s coronavirus-monitoring list. Falling off the list would enable the county to potentially reopen more businesses, schools and other public venues.

The only metric keeping the county on the list is the 14-day average rate of new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents. The state requires that rate to be no more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. As of Tuesday, Los Angeles County was averaging 196 per 100,000 residents.

That rate, however, could allow the county to consider issuing waivers to individual schools or school districts allowing children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade to return to in-person classes. The state allows such waivers in counties that have a new case rate below 200 per 100,000 residents.

In a statement, however, the county Department of Public Health said “it is too early to tell” if the county’s 14-day average will remain below that 200-case mark.

Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health, said in a statement she is “grateful for everyone’s sacrifices that have resulted in slowing the spread” of the coronavirus. But she said residents need to remain diligent about continuing to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and taking other measures to protect against infection.

“Because of the lessons we learned from our explosion of cases in July, I need to ask that we continue to significantly modify our actions if we want to keep community transmission rates low,” she said this week.

Tony Aguilar, the Chief of Special Education for LAUSD, knows it will likely be a while before students will populate classrooms again.

His team, though, is constantly in the planning process.

“I’ve spoken to numerous families that don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school until there’s a vaccine available, which could make things more complicated,” Aguilar said. “I’ve charged a team at the central and local level to make sure we have plans in place for every possibility.”

Aguilar believes it will take social distance protocols, safety guidelines and daily sanitation to even get students assessed for special education. If and when there’s a return to campus, there’s no guarantee that all families will be comfortable with it.

Nonetheless, Aguilar is ready to respond to the whatever practices are chosen for a return to campus. He said his team has multiple “light switches” they’re ready to flip on.

“If we go to a hybrid return, we have a switch for that,” Aguilar said. “If there’s a situation where we can focus on specialized populations, there’s a switch for that. However, we are going to operate under the guidance of county health experts.”

As she waits for word on that return, Gonzalez is occasionally weary but ever-focused, acting as mom and caretaker and part-time teacher.  She’s grateful for the help she gets.

“The teachers at Chatsworth go above and beyond,” Gonzalez said. “They’re involved as much as they possible can. The team of teachers are amazing, trying to get the kids as engaged as possible.”

Teal works hard and does her best. But distance-learning plus homebound isolation don’t always add up to happiness.

She’s often depressed, her mother said, and she misses her classmates and teachers. And she’s sometimes frustrated by the technology staring her in the face for so much of the day.

But elements of the same technology have provided some positive aspects, her mom admitted.

“Teal does FaceTime with friends. Talking with her peers lifts her spirits,” said Gonzalez. “It helps a lot.”

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