Distance Learning Feels Impossible! We Asked a Social Worker for Advice

When the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that distance learning would continue into the fall semester and Governor Newsom outlined requirements for reopening schools in person, parents were simultaneously relieved that their children won’t have to risk exposure to COVID-19 and terrified at the thought of distance learning continuing for the foreseeable future. 

With so many resources already lacking for parents (outside of the chaos the pandemic has wrought), kids being in school for set times during the day has long allowed parents access to both financial and emotional stability. In addition to education, public schools provide so many crucial things at no cost to families: safety and security for children, meals, resources and services families might not be able to afford privately, and a break from caregiving that allows parents to work or have some room to breathe. When those resources are taken away and not replaced, it’s scary and overwhelming — even if distance learning keeps our children and communities safe in other ways. 

We spoke with a social worker from LAUSD’s Student Health and Human Wellness department and Healthy Start program (who asked to remain anonymous) to gain more insight into the stress of distance learning as well as resources that exist for parents.

What we’re losing

Parents of elementary- and middle-school-aged kids are especially affected by distance learning. “It’s not like a high school student where you can leave them alone and they can get their work done,” the social worker says. “You can’t leave your kindergartener or first grader by themselves.” Since LAUSD schools first closed in March, she has already seen the economic turmoil this has caused for many families. “A lot of times, the parent has to quit their job so they can stay home with their child. That was a huge frustration for a lot of parents . . . Schools [have been] a place where parents are able to drop their kids off for [free] childcare, and they don’t have that anymore.” 

While the economic stress is impacting families across the board, some populations are hit a lot harder — particularly students with disabilities, English learners, the 80% of the LAUSD population that lives below the poverty line, undocumented families, and parents who are domestic workers and essential workers.

“Distance learning has made it really hard for English learners and students with disabilities who already were behind,” the social worker says. “The pandemic created an even deeper gap.” Surveys have shown that parents of special education students have been most concerned about learning loss — which we’ve talked about often here at Undivided. Governor Newsom is making it mandatory for districts to seek out parent input on distance learning in order to receive state funding, so our hope is that our concerns will be heard and acted upon.

How are students with disabilities and special education students especially impacted by distance learning?

While concerns regarding distance learning are many, there are some areas in which the social worker feels schools are doing well, especially when it comes to technology. “A lot of our families don’t have access to WiFi, and kids had to do work on their parents’ smartphones, which is really difficult,” the social worker says. “The district was able to identify families who needed hot spots and provide that for them.”

However, technology can only do so much, and social workers understand that. “A lot of our students with disabilities had occupational therapy or physical therapy at school once a week,” she says, “and now they can’t have that anymore — you can’t replicate that online.” As Diane Simon Smith, MFT, discussed in her Live Chat with Undivided, parents are now stepping into therapist roles that many of us don’t have the training or capacity for. That’s not easy for us or for our children, and it takes a toll. (Here are highlights and resource recommendations from that conversation.) 

Moreover, we know that many schools are not equipped to offer FAPE in such an unprecedented situation, and IDEA is in need of emergency funding. Here are some resources our research team has gathered to help with distance learning:

How are parents of students with disabilities impacted? 

The social worker emphasized that the loss of services — whether from school campuses or Regional Centers — impacts parents’ mental health, too: “I had one parent come to see me who had two kids with disabilities and used Regional Center services. She used to get respite once a week through the Regional Center. They gave her a two- to three-hour break while working with her two children.” Her husband has lost his job due to the pandemic but has luckily been able to find day jobs, but now she’s home by herself with three children and no opportunities for respite. And even if she could still get respite from the Regional Center, the mom shared that she wouldn’t necessarily feel safe with people in her home. “That mother was so stressed,” the social worker says. “Respite is such a valuable, integral part of taking care of a family. It gives the caregiver a much-needed break.” While some or many parents may not feel comfortable having someone in their home during the pandemic, Regional Centers are continuing to provide respite and specialized supervision services. In many cases, they are now increasing hours for parents because of distance learning. For more information about respite and COVID-19, click here.

We hope you’ll also check out Undivided’s Live Chats with Dr. Matt Biel and Dr. Rita Eichenstein, which speak to the stresses and overwhelm many parents are experiencing.

What resources exist for parents? 

The social worker says that when LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner formally announced the continuation of distance learning into the 2020–2021 school year, he mentioned “bolstering LA Unified’s online presence.” She reached out to a special education teacher to find information that might especially support parents of SpEd students, but no specifics had been shared yet. She suggests that parents look out for an announcement closer to the proposed LAUSD start date of August 18. While this is specific to LA Unified, other California districts could potentially follow suit, especially after Governor Newsom’s new school requirements for students with disabilities.

If you are an LAUSD parent, the social worker also strongly advises taking advantage of two new hotlines, open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday: 

  • Mental Health Hotline: Call 213-241-3840 if your child is displaying signs of depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles due to the isolation and stress of the pandemic. You’ll be immediately connected to a mental health professional.
  • General Hotline: Call 213-443-1300 to speak directly to a social worker for questions about everything from your child’s IEP and technology/distance learning issues to health insurance questions and more. “If we can’t help parents right away, we’ll provide outside resources to the family,” she says, “though we can often resolve it with the district for them.”
  • Check out Culver City Unified’s family resources and Burbank Unified’s family resources for pandemic relief.

Here’s more information that the social worker we spoke with wants all families to know, even if they’re not LAUSD parents:

  1. See if your school administration has an Assistant Principal Elementary Instructional Specialist (APEIS) on board, who is an assistant principal for special education at your child’s school. “Depending on how active your principal, assistant principal, or APEIS is, that will affect a lot of how these support systems get delivered,” she says. If you’re having issues with your child’s IEP and other SpEd resources, the APEIS is often the person needed to address or resolve it.
  2. If you need to reach an administrator but the usual offices you’d visit are closed, find out if services are offered in any other buildings. For example, because LAUSD is such a large district, it is broken into “local districts,” and all of those offices are still open. In LAUSD, there is Local District South for South LA campuses, Local District West for Venice and West LA campuses, Local District East for Boyle Heights and other eastside campuses, and Local Districts Northwest and Northeast for San Fernando Valley campuses. All of those offices are still open and staffed, even if campuses are not.
  3. Lastly, she wants to remind parents that as long as you or your child have Medi-Cal, there are numerous free resources you can access.

Don’t give up, even when you feel like you’re not getting the help your family deserves.

The social worker had some parting words of support for Undivided parents:

“The system is big, and I think a lot of parents feel like it's such a big system that you have to swallow whatever you're told. But continue advocating for yourself and your child. If you feel discouraged, keep trying to find an advocate or resource — if not in the school, then elsewhere. There really are people in the school who can and want to advocate for you, who want to help you.”

And remember that we as a community are here to support each other and help each other find resources as we navigate this confusing and scary time. 

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