By Matthew Rodriguez

As schools near almost a year of virtual learning, Pasadena Unified School District special education staff has found that the job has not become more difficult but simply different.

“It’s just different,” said PUSD school psychologist Karina Reyes. “It’s just a different way of approaching what we’ve always done. Our professionals have had to approach it in a different way but we’re still identifying needs. We’re still trying to meet the child’s needs.”

According to associate superintendent Marco Villegas, there are about 2,500 special education students all of whom have shifted to virtual learning. To provide the same service as in-person learning Villegas and his staff have had to adapt.

In 2004, Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which established the basis for special education for all of the country’s public schools. School districts across the country create an individual education program to help address the needs of special education students.

“IEP is a plan that is developed, once an IEP team has determined that a child qualifies and meets eligibility criteria as a student with special needs,” said special education coordinator Samantha Garcia-Eggen.

Per its name, each IEP depends on the student. To develop a plan, the staff must evaluate the student’s needs. Psychologists like Reyes perform a different array of tests and observations, as well as meeting with the teachers and parents of the student. The assessment is used to help. Once a team determines the child’s level of performance and a psychologist determines the areas of need, an IEP is developed with goals and different educators to bridge the learning gaps.

With the shift to virtual learning, special education staff has had to mold the plans to help address the new factors of students each having different learning environments.

“All of our students whether they’re [special education] or general education are going through some change in their learning environment,” he said. “We didn’t realize how much of an impact that environment had on learning, but now that everyone has a different learning environment it’s very telling… It becomes a broader system of support.”

According to Villegas and Reyes, the shift to virtual learning, the looming COVID-19 crisis and the lack of interaction with their peers have drastically affected special education students learning.

“They’re going through all the fatigue related to being on the computer, the loneliness of not being able to connect with their friends, there are so many different variables that are happening that make it a complex issue for our students,” said Villegas.

“They heavily rely on this team to function, to be happy and to be successful at school,” added Reyes. “Now that you take that relationship piece away of seeing you day-to-day, it has been harder but not impossible.”

To help give the best education possible to their students, the staff has strengthened their relationships with students’ parents. PUSD has broadened its parental support by providing more tools to help their child’s education.

“We can definitely empathize with our students and with [the] parents that we serve,” said Garcia-Eggen. “Being able to give parents more tools so they can cope and to assist their own children has been really rewarding and well-received.”

However, even with the strides PUSD has made to address the learning gaps caused by virtual learning, Villegas hopes to get students back in-person as quickly and as safely as possible.

“Teachers have really gone out of the way to try different things,” said Villegas. “But there are some students who have been affected in a way that we really hope we can get that support for them face-to-face sooner rather than later.” n