The school year at Duarte Unified School District, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, started a month ago, but Brady, Ellie and Jack Fitzgibbons have yet to receive any instruction from their teachers.
The 13-year-old triplets are on the autism spectrum, and their mother, Julie Fitzgibbons, didn’t feel safe sending them to school because she doubted her kids would keep their masks on all day.
“They struggle with masks. They won’t be able to be in a class with 36 kids wearing masks,” Fitzgibbons said. “Communication is important for autistic kids. They can’t talk with masks.”
But the district has delayed making accommodations for their disabilities through independent study, the only option for remote learning this year. So far, the triplets have lost four weeks of instruction.
Across the state, other parents are being placed in a similar position after more than a year of distance learning during which students with disabilities fell behind disproportionately. Meanwhile, the legislators who designed the recently passed independent study laws say this form of remote learning might not be able to accommodate all students’ needs.
Last year, California’s public schools offered remote instruction through distance learning in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers were required to provide “daily live interaction.”
This school year, with vaccines available to adults and children age 12 and older, live, in-person instruction is the expectation. Parents who want to keep their children learning virtually need to apply to their district for independent study, an option predating the pandemic primarily intended for special cases like traveling athletes or child actors.
The situation is even more complicated for parents of students with disabilities. Those parents work with districts to create what’s called an Individualized Education Program for their children. These programs aren’t set up for distance learning.
Hence Julie Fitzgibbons’ dilemma.
At the beginning of the school year, Fitzgibbons asked the district to place her triplets in independent study. The district, however, said virtual instruction was incompatible with the needs of the triplets and the services they require.
Some educators across the state say even if they can provide special education services through independent study, they’re wholly inadequate.
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