Questions remain after special education update

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Questions remain after special education updateSierra Sands Unified School District held a Town Hall meeting last week to address concerns about how its 700 students with special needs will be supported in the new distance learning model, which all 5,200 students will begin the year with.

Officials from the state and local district have acknowledged that students with individualized education plans — outlining additional support and guidance for students with handicaps ranging from mild to severe — are likely to have more difficulty engaging in a virtual program.

Paul Delbick, who was hired this summer to take the helm of the district’s special education department, told parents at the Town Hall that student services will be provided based on individual need.

Those accommodations range from reduced online access to different software platforms and hardware. Some students will still have access to full-time or part-time paraprofessional support, as well.

However, Delbick noted that all of these accommodations will be limited to a virtual interface.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that counties on the state monitoring list for higher risk of COVID-19 outbreaks (including Kern) will not be allowed to have any in-person instruction.

Following that announcement, SSUSD officials pivoted from its plan to open on campus to transition to its present distance learning platform. Leadership noted that one of its guiding principles in adapting to new restrictions was to “follow the law and take all reasonable steps to follow appropriate guidance.”

Another of those principles is to implement IEPs to the maximum extent possible.

Parents of special needs children have expressed frustration over the gaps in service that will result from remote-only access. However, district officials have said that they are limited by the guidelines imposed at the state level.

Delbick said that exemptions for those guidelines could be approved by Kern County Public Health Department, but that has not been granted.

“We want to open schools, but we are not authorized to,” he said. “So right now, we are focusing all of our energies on the best distance-learning program we can implement.”

In an all-hands e-mail to SSUSD faculty on Wednesday, Ostash acknowledged that while the distance-learning model offers some opportunities for innovation, “we should all remain empathetic to the loss that many of us will experience as a result of virtual-only interaction.

“What we offer on campus, during ‘normal’ times, is a kaleidoscope of academic, social, mental, physical, and inter-personal services. We must work very hard to innovate our approach so that we can ensure continuity of all of these services as much as humanly possible. It will take our intentional thought, imagination, and empathy to recognize the challenges as we move forward to best accommodate our students, and one another.”

Ostash also noted that while parents and families were feeling the squeeze of increasing expectations with diminishing resources, the same applied to teachers.

“We too have experienced, to different degrees, our own loss due to this Pandemic. The changing conditions under which we are forced to plan and respond in our profession is not our doing nor is it what any of us want. As such, I know that many of us have experienced, or are currently experiencing, some emotional distress regarding this temporary reality. I want you to know that I am keenly aware of this and that I empathize with each of you. We are working together, as a team, to develop newly adopted plans that assure a quality educational experience for our students, while also taking care of ourselves as best as possible.”

Families struggling to accommodate their special-needs students are encouraged to reach out to the Kern Regional Center — which coordinates community-based services and support for individuals with developmental disabilities. The Ridgecrest office can be reached at 760-375-9512.

Story First Published: 2020-08-07