What happens to the 62,500 students with special needs during Los Angeles teachers' strike?

Kristin Lam

When Sonia Hernandez explained the Los Angeles teachers' strike to her 10-year-old son with autism, he almost started to cry from distress.

"I don't want the teachers to miss school," Daniel told her, his voice changing tone as he immediately stood. "I don't want to go to another class. I want to be in the same classroom with my same classmates."

The disruption triggered by the strike that began Monday in the nation's second-largest school district could set back Daniel and thousands of other children with developmental disabilities who need special education and consistency, parents told USA TODAY.

About 62,500 students with special needs attend schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District School, said associate superintendent for Special Education Beth Kauffman. 

Students with developmental disabilities — from autism to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — sometimes need one-on-one aides and services such as behavioral and speech therapy at school. Each follows an individualized education plan defining their goals and needs.

But, on Sunday, the day before the strike began in the pouring rain with picketing and protests, some parents told USA TODAY that schools had not provided information about alternate lesson plans that would support their students with disabilities. 

With three sons on the autism spectrum who attend district schools, Hernandez stayed home with her kids Monday because she worried the strike arrangements would not be safe for them. Automated phone calls notified her that schools planned to group students in auditoriums with supervision, but Hernandez said her boys would be at risk without staff to monitor and help them.

Her oldest son Sebastian, 12, has an aide and needs assistance even in small groups. 

"They're not the best communicators," Hernandez said. "They're not ready to say, 'I'm sick,' 'Somebody pushed me,' 'Somebody kicked me.'"

The boys instead worked on assignments from their teachers and did some reading, said Hernandez, not that staying at home reduced their anxiety from facing an uncertain situation at school. It would be naive to think the district would bring in substitute teachers trained to work with kids with autism, she said.

During the strike, Kauffman said students with disabilities who need to be in smaller settings will be accommodated. Special education students who mostly follow the general education curriculum, however, will remain with their peers.

Based on student needs, Kauffman said, the district sent 200 administrators and staff with experience in special education to support students with disabilities. 

Kauffman said principals should have communicated with parents to let them know the district would meet special education needs throughout the strike.  

Early Monday morning, Meshell Baylor did not know if the bus would come to take her son Justin, 18, to his district special needs school. When it arrived, she asked the regular aide what would happen with the strike. She said he told her the students would do group activities in a group setting with substitutes. 

Baylor said she called the school about 10 times from work to check in on Justin, who has autism, but kept getting disconnected. Eventually, Baylor said she emailed the school and got a response from the principal. He assured her that he was fine and sent a picture of him drawing.

But, Baylor said she didn't know her son's substitute teacher, the teacher's background, or if the same teacher would be with him all week.

"I'm literally in the dark for right now," Baylor said. 

Justin relies on repetition, Baylor said, so he must continue going to school and needs the teachers and aides he regularly sees. Changes to his schedule throw him off and can make him upset and frustrated for the whole day, she said, meaning he'll need to be redirected with activities such as coloring. 

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Meanwhile, Baylor's younger son Christopher, 14, stayed home at his instructional aide's recommendation. Baylor said the aide called her before the school day, telling her the middle school had limited staff for a large student population.

But, Christopher will return to school tomorrow, however, because of attendance requirements, she said.

When Leslie Blanco asked her daughter Diamond, 12, what she did at middle school on Monday, Diamond told her they did not do much at all. The seventh grader has a learning disability, Blanco said, and usually takes home enough homework to last two days. She finished all of her assignments from last week and didn't get any new ones Monday. 

Kauffman, who worked with special needs students on Monday, said students seemed to be happy and engaged. 

"Learning is taking place and they're getting their breakfast, they're getting their lunch, they're safe," she said. "Things are looking pretty good at the schools. It seems like it's very organized."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What happens to the 62,500 students with special needs during Los Angeles teachers' strike?