Around 78,000 Monterey County students are no longer in school. At least not physically in school, but rather learning virtually or from a distance. COVID-19 has forced educators, parents and students to convert their homes into classrooms. And for some children with special needs, this new challenge has also created a unique opportunity.
Stephanie Flax says when she first found out all her teaching had to go on online, she was shocked.
“How are we going to engage, especially the little littles virtually,” wondered Flax.
Flax is a special education teacher who works with 14 preschool-aged children in the Salinas area. Her “little humans,” as she affectionately calls them, have moderate to severe challenges. Some have autism, some have Down syndrome, and some haven’t had their conditions identified. According to the Monterey County Office of Education, children with disabilities represent just over 10 percent of students in the county.
Flax’s students come from predominantly rural, agricultural and Spanish speaking communities.
Once over the initial shock of having to move her classroom online, Flax said she started one-on-one video chats. First,10 to 15 minutes with the assistance of any family member who was available to sit with the child on the other side.
“And in some situations, it's an uncle and in other situations it’s an older sibling,” Flax said.
Now, she’s up to 30 minute chats.
“I'm in their homes now and they're usually sitting on their mom's lap or, you know, climbing a jungle gym and their parent is like trying to get them to sit in front of their phone or their computer,” said Flax.
Recently, she hosted her first group video class with six children. She said it was a huge success.
“For that 30 minutes, all the kids were like looking at each other like, oh my gosh, that's so and so from class. And here they are in a little box on a screen on my mom's phone. And it's a lot to take in for these kids,” Flax said.
Flax says how she is teaching right now has turned into a positive opportunity that she never expected.
She’s able to work more closely with parents and validate the strategies they’re using at home. She’s encouraging parents to trust their instincts, even when their child isn’t responding in that moment. She loves how responsive and resilient parents are being right now.
But despite being very upbeat, Flax says virtual learning hasn’t been easy, or even possible for every family.
“I worry about the families that are not technologically savvy,” said Flax.
She says with some parents, she’s just trying to help them set up or use the technology. And until those parents gain some digital know-how, their kids are missing out.
But there’s also the families who can’t afford or don’t have access to the technology.
“I think the families that are lower income right now, they're not participating as as we would like,” added Flax.
The digital divide goes beyond special education; it affects all aspects of learning and is leaving some children behind in the classroom.
“Literally, it could be the civil rights issue of our era,” says Dr. Deneen Guss, Monterey County superintendent of schools.
“Our students really deserve to have an equitable education,” Guss added.
She acknowledges that families without digital access are feeling disadvantaged right now.
She’s created a task force that is working to ensure every student in the county has a device and reliable internet connectivity. She says many children have already received Chromebooks or tablets, and mobile hotspots.
But in the meantime, some schools that don’t have strong enough wifi, or their students don’t have devices, are instead offering instructional packets. These packets are filled with homework for up to two weeks.
“I absolutely do believe that students who are being given instructional packets, they too, they can move their learning forward. It's just… it's going to take a little bit heavier of a lift,” said Guss.
This will be the ‘new norm’ for the foreseeable future. Most schools in Monterey County expect to do distance learning until the end of the school year.
“It will get to a point where you're going to have to get more and more creative,” said Stephanie Flax.
That’s something the special education teacher is working on every day.
Online education is a learning experience for students, parents and teachers.