Special ed families feel ‘disregarded’ by CUSD The Chandler Arizonan

Special ed families feel ‘disregarded’ by CUSD

October 25th, 2020 Chandler Arizona Staff
Special ed families feel ‘disregarded’ by CUSD
City News

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

Jane Andersen was willing to give Chandler Unified School District a pass when the pandemic first started back in March.

She understood why schools had to close and had low expectations for how her 14-year-old son, Mattie, was going to be educated for the rest of the school year.

Mattie is blind, mentally impaired and requires special help to accommodate his cerebral palsy. So, Andersen knew online learning probably wasn’t going to work. 

He is one of more than 4,600 special education students in the district who require individualized education plans.

As Andersen’s other children finished out their school year doing assignments virtually, Mattie had to try and complete activities sent home by his teachers.

“That fourth quarter was hard for all kids,” Andersen said. “But for my son…. online learning was really a joke. I mean it wasn’t even challenging. It was silly.”

One assignment asked Mattie to practice good etiquette while attending a movie theater – an activity Mattie normally wouldn’t do even if a global pandemic had not shut down every cinema in Arizona. 

“No learning really occurred there,” Andersen said about her son’s assignments.

Then the next school year started in August and CUSD decided to keep its schools closed until the second quarter starts this week.

Since mid-August, some students like Mattie had been allowed to visit their school for about seven hours per week to receive hands-on instruction with a special education teacher. 

Although Andersen thought seven hours was an “inadequate” amount of weekly instruction, she figured it was better than nothing and gave CUSD another pass.

But Andersen is close to running out of patience with the school district.

After the CUSD Governing Board narrowly voted to allow elementary students to come back to school in September, Andersen could no longer keep her frustrations to herself.

The board’s decision notably left out middle and high school students, who have had to wait until Oct. 13 to return to campus.

Andersen felt her son – who is starting his first year at Perry High School – could not wait another month.

She began writing letters to administrators asking why special education students couldn’t come back sooner.

“It was frustrating to me that my son was kind of disregarded,” the mother said. “It’s been really difficult because he needs full one-on-one attention all the time.”

Chandler Unified has had to contend with several dilemmas over the last six months as it navigated the challenges of trying to figure how to virtually educate 46,000 students learning at home.

Parents have been demanding for months to have the schools reopen and some have gone so far as to threaten to pull their child out of CUSD if the district didn’t comply.

But parents like Jane Andersen can’t simply take her son to a private school.

It costs up to $37,000 to enroll in a school that could accommodate Mattie’s needs, Andersen said, and the deadline for families to seek a scholarship or a state voucher already expired.

So, the Andersens have been left to wait until CUSD decided to welcome back students like Mattie to its high schools.

Waiting an extra month may not seem like much to other families, Andersen noted, but it can feel like an eternity for a 14-year-old who has been receiving very little meaningful educational engagement for months.

Terry Locke, a spokesman for CUSD, said the special education issue is a matter of shuffling resources.

CUSD considered bringing special education students back sooner at the high schools, but Locke said it would have been impossible while the majority of them were still learning at home.

“While we were one of the first districts to provide special (education) services,” Locke said, “it would have been difficult to provide full-time special education classrooms without reopening the school.”   

Elisa Taylor, another CUSD parent, said she has not been satisfied with the district’s reasoning for not allowing special education students to return earlier.

Her 13-year-old daughter Ari should be attending Payne Junior High, where she’s involved in several extracurricular activities.

Despite Ari’s epilepsy and cerebral palsy, she is a social butterfly who loves being around her peers at school, Taylor said.

The last six months have been particularly challenging for Ari, her mother said, because unlike her siblings, Ari is physically confined to the family’s home and cannot easily stay connected with people her own age. 

“She can’t just ride her bike down the street, go to a friend’s house, text somebody – it’s just not the same thing at all,” Taylor said.

Online learning has turned out to be a daily struggle for Taylor and her daughter.

Each week, the teenager receives a few hours of in-person instruction and completes one 45-minute virtual lesson.

But Taylor said she feels Ari isn’t getting the same level of engagement out of virtual learning compared to her other children.

Furthermore, Taylor has to assist her daughter through activities and assignments sent home by Ari’s teachers and the mother doesn’t always feel qualified to offer the best one-on-one instruction.

“I’m not a teacher. I may be educated, but this is not my specialty,” Taylor said. “And she’s sick of working with me half the time.”

Taylor said she had foolishly presumed that when students started going back to school on Sept. 14, her daughter would be among the first pupils to return.

It wasn’t made clear the older special education students would have to wait until October, Taylor noted, so the news turned out to be devastating for her family.

Another of Taylor’s children has already transferred to a charter school because she didn’t want to wait any longer for classroom instruction.

Taylor hopes her other children won’t have to follow because she still values and appreciates public education.

Like Taylor, Andersen doesn’t want to perceive CUSD as an enemy in this situation. Yet she feels compelled to bring attention to an injustice when she sees one.

“I believe in public education and I love our school district,” Andersen said. “But when they’re wrong, I will let them know.”

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