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A 'Sobering Reality' For Special Needs Kids In An Era Of Distance Learning

From left to right: Kelley, Aaron, Sean and Eric Coleman. Six-year-old Aaron is a kindergartener at Coldwater Canyon Elementary who receives special education services. In the foreground is Aaron's therapy dog, Heddie. (Courtesy of the Coleman family)
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Every time 6-year-old Aaron Coleman sees a computer, he wants to touch it. He wants to carry it around. And lick it. And "bang-bang-bang" on it.

Aaron just doesn't want to sit still in front of it.

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"He's an enthusiastic little guy about most things," said his mother, Kelley Coleman.

A genetic disorder has significantly delayed Aaron's cognitive development, so he qualifies for special education services from his Los Angeles Unified school -- including an adult helper, who stays with the kindergartener at all times to attend to his medical and behavior issues.

But since the coronavirus pandemic forced Aaron's LAUSD campus to close almost four weeks ago, he's been without this one-on-one assistance. Other special education services, like therapies meant to help with his communication and motor skills, have also stopped.

And ironically, the only way Aaron's likely to get any of those services any time soon is through a computer.

"When you are trying to teach your child, 'Don't touch the computer,'" his mother, Kelley, said, "there really is not a lot of other learning going on."


Teaching students with disabilities is complicated enough in normal times. Now, the coronavirus crisis has compounded the challenge, forcing California public schools to serve these students online.


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On Monday, L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said that the district is rising to the challenge. He said the district is already providing many common special education services -- physical, occupational and speech therapies -- "via teleconferencing."

Kelley Coleman said Beutner's statement doesn't hold true for Aaron. Though she says Aaron's special education classroom teacher has been in touch, Coleman's not heard from any of Aaron's specialists about a plan to resume services: "We hope there will be a plan after spring break" -- which is this week.

Coleman's not alone.

"What we're hearing is a lot of students aren't receiving services," said Lisa Mosko, special education director for Speak Up, an advocacy organization that's primarily active within LAUSD. "The question is: why isn't that happening?"

A padlocked entrance to Bellevue Primary Center, an L.A. Unified School District campus in Silver Lake, on April 1, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

And the question isn't only facing LAUSD parents. Alison Rivera said the Corona-Norco Unified School District has stopped providing special education preschool as well as speech and occupational therapy for her son Joel, who has autism.

The district has outlined plans for "voluntary" distance learning programs to resume on April 13 -- and Rivera said she still hasn't heard from her district providers whether special education services will resume. Like the parents of many students with disabilities, she worries that without services, Joel will regress.

"You feel this time crunch," Rivera said, "like you have to hurry up and get this and so for me it was super frustrating to be like, I got everything settled finally -- and then this happened and we're back to square one basically."


Adapting special education to distance learning is no easy challenge -- and LAUSD is far from the only district facing it.

California schools have identified more than 795,000 students with disabilities -- roughly one out of every seven students in the state's K-12 system. Their disabilities run the gamut, from dyslexia, to autism, to Aaron Coleman's genetic condition, which his mother says experts still have yet to identify by name.

Each one of these students has a unique plan -- an individualized education plan, or "IEP" -- spelling out a full list of services and accommodations needed to receive a "free and appropriate public education." Services in the IEP are guaranteed by a crucial federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

And even during the shutdown, this crucial federal law still applies.

"Let me make that clear: the federal government ... has said," California state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a press conference last week, "that districts are in fact able, allowed and encouraged to provide special education through distance learning given the circumstances we face from COVID-19."

"We're having to think more out of the box than ever," said Kristen Wright, who oversees special education at the California Department of Education. "But that's what special educators and parents of kids with disabilities do."

Aaron Coleman is a kindergartener at Coldwater Canyon Elementary. (Courtesy of the Coleman family)


But alongside bold promises to adapt services, many state and local school officials are also acknowledging a sobering reality facing special education: "There may be some students," as Beutner put it, "for whom there is no good substitute for face-to-face contact."

Kelley Coleman's son Aaron may be one of those students. She says his behavior often backslides without the structure and routine of a school day.

"We see Aaron regress even over a holiday break," she said.

Before the coronavirus shutdown, Coleman was happy with Aaron's IEP, his teachers, his service providers and his school, Coldwater Canyon Elementary.

Now, she's worried that even with good teachers on Aaron's team, their services won't do him much good -- because he can't sit still in front of a computer.

"Even as a parent who puts in a great deal of effort," she said, "there is no way I can give him everything he needs at home and without his services."

"I'm confident," Coleman added, matter-of-factly, "that he will regress during this time."