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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Even the experts are struggling at teaching their children from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Victoria Debenham and Dan Stapleton got married six years ago, and have a blended family of three children, two of whom are 15-year-old twins with autism who started school again in the beginning of August. Both parents are working from home and trade off responsibilities.

Debenham is a Sacramento-area middle school special education teacher for students with mild to moderate disabilities. Even though she has been teaching for 15 years, this experience has made her feel like she is a brand-new teacher again.

"Trying to get the kids to be productive online is a challenge," Debenham said. "What comes with kids with disabilities is you get some behaviors that in addition to the learning are challenging. Trying to manage all of that is hard."

"I have the benefit of using some of these online platforms already, and it took me a couple of hours over the weekend to prepare for their school this week. For the typical parent I can't even imagine how frustrating that would be," Debenham said.

While teaching children at home has been difficult for many parents, students with special needs present an extra challenge. With no support staff on hand and no specialized training, parents say they've struggled to find success with stay-at-home learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But some say they've found it.

The most common disability brought up by a dozen interviewed parents was autism. Autism spectrum disorder has a wide range of disabilities, from mild to severe. Young and adolescent children may experience different difficulties with speech, behavior and learning among other issues, making virtual learning less than ideal.

Stapleton said when teachers initially came out with their virtual learning plans, they included multiple platforms.

"I had to learn different applications online, get the kids logged in and had multiple emails from five or six teachers," he said.

Debenham and Stapleton said they feel their teachers have done the best they can by being positive, communicating with families and preparing their syllabuses.

Stapleton said the hardest part is balancing his work, helping his children and also keeping them productive at home.

"I have my own work to do, and I'm pretty much the teacher aide for my children," he said. "They're having a hard time following some of the directions for the log-ins. This year appears to be better because they're all using Google Classroom and it's more uniform."

Autistic students miss friends, teachers

Another notable issue brought up by parents was missing human interaction and their friends. One mother of an 11-year-old son with autism talked about how her family's goal for him this year was to gain socialization skills and friends as he entered middle school. COVID-19 has derailed that plan.

But lack of socialization isn't an issue for Chris Orozco, who has a 19-year-old daughter diagnosed with autism and anxiety in an adult program. She has been using Google Classroom, Google Meet and Zoom for her classes.

His daughter has not had a tough time with distance learning and it may be more comfortable for her.

"She prefers it to being in school as she doesn't have to deal with all the overwhelming sensory input or difficulties of interacting with peers," he said.

The purpose of adult programs is to help transition students with disabilities who are between the ages of 18-22 from high school to adult life. These programs may not have been given much thought because of the relatively small number of people in the programs, according to Orozco.

Orozco added the quality of the teacher can affect the experience of the student.

"When she's working with decent staff, whether in person or virtual, she does well," he said of his daughter. "When she's working with crappy staff, it's a problem whether in person or virtual — they're still crappy and don't work well with her. The distance learning really confirmed to me the difference between the good ones and the bad ones."

To keep her occupied, her father gives her worksheets, puzzles, games and he also makes time for independent reading.

One positive he mentioned is that the break has given him time to work on her hygiene and life skills. Many parents mentioned concern for their children's health during the pandemic, which has made them hesitant to go back to traditional learning too quickly as some children may have difficulties understanding the need to wash their hands, use proper sanitation, wear masks and social distance.

Finding what works for special needs students

Lisa Jeffers has three children in varying areas of the autism spectrum, and trying to manage all of their classes has been a big test. Her oldest and youngest daughters are on the milder side, while her son has some behavioral issues.

"We have been distance learning since spring break," she said. "For this year, we chose a school with full distance learning. We can't wait around to see what happens with COVID. We need structure here."

A positive she mentioned is they can do their classes from anywhere — in their rooms, in the living room or even outside if they choose.

"That has worked to our advantage," she said. "Because at school, it's like, desk or desk. This gives us some variety."

Her son benefits the most from doing English and math worksheets, and while her daughters are able to do their work online, she said her youngest daughter is slower with paperwork, and while she is able to get it done, it's hard for her to keep up when the class moves on.

"I can't help or check up on my other two as much because my son needs more support than they do," she said.

Jeffers wanted people to know one thing.

"It's not just the special needs community who is struggling, it's everyone," she said. "But I feel like special needs children are getting the short end of the stick depending on what services they have. It's just different in person, having the teacher there instead of just talking to a screen."

Debenham, the teacher with a special needs student of her own, also had a note for parents and families: Go a little easy on faculty and staff.

"We're trying to do our jobs as best we can in a climate where there's a lot of fear and anxiety," she said. "And this can be a good opportunity for parents to get involved in the education of their children. Learning is fun!"

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