Difficult Decisions About Returning to School | Organization for Autism Research

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For parents of students with special needs, including those with autism, the decision about returning to school is magnified. On the one hand, remote learning is the safest option in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. On the other, getting kids who need specialized services back into the classroom is critical in order to make sure they get those services.



In an article on the DisabilityScoop website, Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) suggested that parents keep in mind that COVID-19 does not change things when it comes to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Services for students with disabilities need to be individualized.

She said parents should request an IEP meeting and also ask that modifications made due to the pandemic be included in an addendum to the IEP with a date at which the adjustments will be reviewed. Parents can also request additional services if their children regressed or if services could not be provided last spring when schools closed down.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows parents to seek compensatory services if students with disabilities do not receive the free appropriate public education they’re entitled to, the article noted. An attorney who specializes in representing people with autism and other developmental disabilities, Gary Mayerson, recommended that parents remind schools of that now rather than trying to get compensatory services after the pandemic has ended.

It’s also important, he said, to update IEPs with goals pertinent to COVID-19 specific activities, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and other elements of the current environment.

So what should parents who have students with autism hope for?


Tiny Classes; Lots of Support

A Marin County, California school holds up one possible model. As noted in an article on the EdSource website, eight students in special education attended school in the spring, five in the classroom and three remotely. In the physical classroom, a teacher and three full-time teacher assistants taught the students.

Upon arrival students had their temperatures taken, and parents were asked a few questions about possible coronavirus exposure in their households. Backpacks were wiped down with disinfectants.

Wipe downs of items used and surfaces, along with handwashing, continued throughout the day. Students’ temperatures were taken again at the end of the day.

All but one of the students wore masks and their desks were at least six apart. With the student-to-educator ratio so low, students can mostly be kept a healthy distance from other students. “It’s been running so much more smoothly than I thought it would,” teacher Cindy Evans said in the article.


Testing a Possibility in Palo Alto

A summer school program for students with moderate to severe disabilities is another example of the possibilities for in-school education. At the time the article was published on the Palo Alto Online website, however, no decisions had been made about the fall. Forty students attended the five-week summer program in person while seven medically fragile students were enrolled online.

According to the article, school district staff worked for months to design a program that would comply with public health mandates, in consultation with the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health and local medical and education experts.

Each classroom was limited to eight students. Blue tape around each desk served as visual cues for students to keep their distance. Hallways were converted into one-way paths with walls papered in flyers reminding students to keep six feet apart and wash their hands. Students, staff, and visitors underwent daily symptom and temperature checks. A custodian deep cleaned the classrooms every night.

Everyone on staff including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, behavior specialist, and adaptive PE teacher wore masks, including clear ones for students who needed to read lips. While staff asked the parents to get the students ready to wear masks, not all of the students wore them all of the time they were in the program. Some could not due to their disabilities. For those who could wear them but took them off, staff used incentives, which they also used to encourage social distancing and hand washing. In general, the students adapted well to the new health requirements, district staff said.

The program’s high school teacher, Raquel Cuevas, used creative learning to get students outside, like, for example, a scavenger hunt collecting leaves, sticks, rocks, and flowers for an art project. Postsecondary students, who typically focus on vocational skills, have been going out to clean up local parks.


Additional Ideas

An article on the Vox website also outlined some possibilities:

  • Districts could examine whether it’s safe for therapists and one-to-one support professionals to make home visits to students while school buildings are closed.
  • Allow students with disabilities to come to school in person even if the school year starts remotely for others.
  • Additional funding could provide the technology needed to ensure that children with special needs can continue classes and therapies remotely as well as increasing the number of therapists and aides need to provide services in person when that is possible.

The frustrations and difficulties many parents and educators are currently facing underscores the fact that serving special education students “will require a great deal of individualization and different models,” noted Mary Jane Burke, Marin County’s superintendent of schools, in the EdSource article.


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