Features Magazine Volume 70, Issue 4

The Individualized Education Program During the Pandemic

By Sebastian Squire

Graphic by Jackie Veliz

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, turned the world upside down. In an almost apocalyptic twist, Americans fight over toilet paper as their parents die in nursing homes. In a year of unprecedented events, students have struggled with online school, a loss of social activity, and in many cases, the unthinkable happening to those in their own homes. Students with learning disabilities, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans have been hit especially hard. In addition to the normal pressures of life during the pandemic, these students are expected to navigate the murky waters of school online with learning plans created to be used in an in-person environment.

Under Section 300.320 of the Americans With Disabilities Act, an IEP is defined as a legal document given to ensure that a student is given the means to succeed, regardless of a learning disability. This could mean specialized instruction, or various other learning accommodations. IEPs contain specific goals for students to complete and how they can go about completing these goals. A 504 Plan is allowed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and also provides students with accommodations to ensure equal access to learning. It differs from an IEP in that it does not allow specialized instruction.

Olivia Butcher, a Las Lomas sophomore with a 504 Plan, describes the challenges of distance learning as “[having] no routine, [being] expected to do work on my own, [being] expected to learn on my own, not [being] able to turn much work in late, [and] not having extended testing periods.” Another major challenge for Butcher is not being able to focus during long hours of Zoom school and Zoom fatigue. “During distance learning I’m unable to focus (even on medication),” which she said can cascade into other problems such as “extra stress, more time needed to finish assignments, [and] more anxiety around school.” 

On the other hand, Las Lomas Senior Chihiro Mesta has had a positive experience with online learning. “I’ve been able to cope [better] because I am at home. [While] at school I just wouldn’t be able to do as well with coping as I am now.” Mesta also highlighted the support she has received, describing her experience with teachers. “My learning skills teacher has been a big help for me during distance learning (I have Ms. Bachtold).” She did say, however, that she saw room for improvement on behalf of the Las Lomas Administration’s efforts to reach out to students. “Only my learning skills teacher has really reached out, but I can tell the school wants to try and help by sending school wide emails, but not actually reaching out one on one with students.” Butcher also has struggled to gain help during the pandemic. She said that her experience with teachers offering help has been polarized. “I feel like they could do more to help, but there are a few teachers that help me a lot.”

“While distance Learning does not provide the same learning experience as in person, in this time of pandemic, we are providing a different learning experience,” said Karen Heilbronner, director of the Special Education and Auxiliary Services for the Acalanes Union High School District. Heilbronner also explained that all students with IEPs are given access to “a credentialed Special Education teacher assigned as a Case Manager to oversee the student’s program and services.” Summing up the situation, Heilbronner said what is becoming something of a catch phrase for 2020: “Everyone wants students back on campus, and everyone wants students and teachers to be safe and healthy.”