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Beacons, Inc. and MiraCosta's adults with disabilities program lead the way in virtual instruction.

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

As many families struggle to get daily instruction from school districts, local programs such as Beacons, Inc. and the adults with disabilities program of MiraCosta Community College launched virtual and daily instruction almost immediately to make sure students' instruction was not interrupted by COVID-19. Dedicated instructors teach their lessons using Zoom, Google Suite options, Padlet, SMore and other engaging programs to meet their students' needs, and in the case of MiraCosta even modified the class hours to better support their students' learning differences.

Beacons, Inc., a Carlsbad nonprofit that provides postsecondary support and services to individuals with disabilities, launched virtual instruction within three days of the Governors' March 20 shelter-in-place order. The Governor's order was issued on Friday the 20th and by Monday, March 23rd, the Beacons customer service skills vocational workshop was up and running three hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Trainees are developing websites, employment profiles, social skills and workforce skills to help them transition to employment post workshop. Virtual "Tailored Day" sessions are also in place to provide 1:1 services to its clients. Beacons is a vendor of the San Diego Regional Center (SDRC), so workshops and Tailored Day services are provided at no cost to eligible SDRC consumers. To make sure the individuals who Beacons serves are not isolated during site closures, Beacons volunteers also present Club Beacons social activities and its Leadership Council virtually. 

Lucile Lynch, Chair of the Beacons Pathfinder Program and Leadership Council, explained, "We have excellent instructors who care deeply about our trainees and did what it took to launch instruction without much notice to transition their lesson plans to Zoom." Pathfinder's Lead instructor Cher Graham, a credentialed special education teacher formerly with the San Dieguito Union High School District's adult transition program, and assistant instructor Seton Conley, with a background in ASL and communications, eagerly met the challenge per Lynch, as did Beacons' committed Tailored Day specialists. She thanks the SDRC for making these services possible.

MiraCosta's teachers in the adults with disability program also launched their virtual classes almost immediately to provide instruction in basic academic skills, basic computer and other areas to help students build their reading, vocabulary and computer skills. Zoom, Google Tools and Smore are their preferred tools to make sure their students continue to learn on a regular basis. Despite the wide range of abilities in these community college classes, MiraCosta's adjunct faculty for the adults with disabilities courses are making virtual instruction work for their students. MiraCosta's classes for adults with disabilities are noncredit and free to the students enrolled.

By comparison, parents of students in districts such as the San Dieguito Union High School District are reporting that they have yet to receive daily instruction. Many families in the district said they have had no daily instruction in the month since the schools closed. Some parents with students in the adult transition program shared that they are simply provided thirty minute "check-ins" once or twice a week. Instead of instruction, families are being sent lists and weekly calendars of activities to complete at home.

Families of students in the general education classes are similarly reporting that there is no daily instruction for their students and that there is no consistency in what the teachers are providing. A few teachers are providing some instruction, while many are not providing daily instruction, though the reasons are unclear given that salaries are still being paid, chromebooks are available to students, and teachers should already have lesson plans in place. As one family in San Dieguito shared, "Why aren't the teachers teaching? They have their lesson plans. All they need to do is launch a zoom class to teach those plans instead of sending those plans home to us."

For students with special educational needs, and high rates of regression in academic, behavior, speech and other areas, bi-weekly check-ins and academic "to do" lists fall short of what is needed for students already far behind their neurotypical peers. The district's adult transition program has three teachers, but a parent shared that they are all sending the identical weekly calendar of activities to families, instead of providing daily instruction or weekly activities leveled for the students. 

"We want to be supportive of teachers and their struggles with their families during this difficult time," said a parent with a student at La Costa Canyon High School who asked that her name be withheld, "but the reality is that the teachers are getting paid their full salary and benefits at this time so it would be nice if they would provide some daily online instruction even if only for a couple of hours a day."

Governor Newsom's March 4, 2020, directive stated that funding of public schools would remain in place to fund distance learning and "high quality educational opportunities," yet parents and the students in too many districts continue to wait for virtual daily instruction to begin despite almost a month having passed since the Governor's March 20th order directing individuals to stay at home. For now, many parents have to essentially homeschool on top of their existing responsibilities related to work and other commitments until districts require teachers to provide daily instruction.

State regional centers, responsible for providing support and services under the state's Lanterman Act, have begun to question what will happen if districts continue to lag in providing the needed instruction to students with disabilities. Under the Lanterman Act, regional centers are responsible for helping their clients and their families secure services and supports which "maximize opportunities and choices" for living, working, learning and recreating in the community. WIC § 4640.7.If schools are not providing the services needed, consumers may begin to ask for the regional centers to fund supports and services.

Under the Lanterman Act, funding is not permitted for support and services that should be provided by a school district unless the regional center determines that the "consumer's needs cannot be met in the educational system," in which case the regional center may pay for the support and services needed. WIC § 4648.55. If districts fail to provide daily instruction or services, students with disabilities eligible for support and services under the Lanterman Act may begin to turn to their local regional centers for educational support, putting an additional strain on already limited resources used to fund options under the Lanterman Act.

Discussions at the state and local level are exploring how long to keep schools closed, with some discussions suggesting the possibility of closures through the fall term. As closures are extended, families have started pressing for more instruction and services and are hoping that a model is designed at the state level to help teachers and students obtain the support and guidance they need.

The ACLU and other organizations committed to protecting individuals' civil rights have been alerted of the lack of instruction some special education students are encountering and have begun exploring the lack of educational equity of these and other students. The California Constitution guarantees free public education through grades K - 12, but at this time, that guarantee seems in jeopardy for students most vulnerable.

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