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Students With Special Needs Return To School, Making Up For Lost Time

Alejandro Blanco, 13, does school work at the dining room table with help from his mother, Maria A. Lopez, Aug. 27, 2021. He went back to school this week as a freshman at Madison High School.
M.G. Perez / KPBS
Alejandro Blanco, 13, does school work at the dining room table with help from his mother, Maria A. Lopez, Aug. 27, 2021. He went back to school this week as a freshman at Madison High School.
Thousands of students in San Diego County are back at school making up for lost time in their learning. The challenge is especially difficult for children with special needs.

Thousands of students across San Diego County are back on school campuses this fall, making up for lost time in their learning. The COVID-19 shutdown was especially challenging for children with special needs, who now return to classes in-person after more than a year without being around their teachers and friends.

One of those special needs students is 13-year-old Alejandro Blanco, who likes to be called Alex. He has Down Syndrome. Alex is a freshman at Madison High School and lives with his mother and grandmother in their Mountain View home.

Students With Special Needs Return To School, Making Up For Lost Time
Listen to this story by M. G. Perez.

“I know I have to take care of my son, I love my son with all my heart. I’m his mommy and I’ll do everything in my power for him to be okay,” said his mother, Maria A. Lopez. She is a single mother who works extra shifts at a local grocery store in order to provide for her family.

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Like many parents, Lopez was surprised when schools suddenly shut down in March 2020 because of COVID-19. She worked early morning hours in order to be home to help Alex with lessons after his online session with his special education teacher.

“In the beginning, I wanted him to write and start talking more. I didn’t know anything about computers. I was worried and said 'now what are we going to do?'” she said.

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Students with special needs receive therapy and support that includes an annual Individualized Education Plan, also known as an IEP. That’s a federal legal document that outlines goals and services for each student with special needs. Regular meetings for parents and teachers are part of the program. The COVID-19 shutdown left teachers and school administrators scrambling to hold IEP meetings online or by phone.

“I think they thought the federal government was going to come in and give them a pass for all this,” said Jennifer Rayle, who taught special education for thirty years in San Diego County. Now she’s a professional advocate who supports parents during IEP meetings.

“Really, parents just want to know where their kids are,” Rayle said. “Have they regressed during this time or have they made progress with virtual learning? They just want answers.”

VIDEO: Students With Special Needs Return To School, Making Up For Lost Time

Answers are not coming quickly in most districts that are still fighting the spread of the coronavirus. San Diego Unified is offering online learning through its Virtual Academy program and will also offer a choice of online or in-person IEP meetings.

While Alex made some progress learning at home, his mother is happy that he’s at Madison High School now with friends. “I want the best for him. I know he can learn and be successful,” Lopez said.