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Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

Focus on At-Risk Students’ Basic Needs, or Lose Them, UCLA Expert Advises

[dc]“W[/dc]e are at risk of losing an entire generation of young people.”

UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard made this bleak prediction at a virtual public meeting Wednesday while discussing Los Angeles County youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems who are heading back to upended schools during the disruptive storm of the coronavirus.

Howard warned members of the County Office of Child Protection’s Education Coordinating Council that COVID-19 threatens to widen the learning gap between these students and their peers, leaving them in danger of dropping out of school, entering the criminal justice system and developing even deeper mental health problems.

Support for these students will have to focus on their families’ basic needs, like rental assistance and child care, as well as equity issues, said Howard, who directs the Black Male Institute at the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

With public schools throughout the county offering classes online, a July report by the Los Angeles Unified School District found that children of color and foster youth are participating in distance learning significantly less than other groups of students.

Los Angeles Unified School District found that children of color and foster youth are participating in distance learning significantly less than other groups of students.

To effect change, Howard said education and child welfare professionals must discuss taboo topics such as race, racism and mental health. If they are unwilling to have these “hard conversations,” he added, children will suffer.

Students with special needs are of particular concern to members of the education council – which includes representatives of community-based organizations, former foster and probation youth as well as officials from the county’s school districts, juvenile courts and child welfare agencies.

Well before the pandemic, special education students inside and outside the child welfare system struggled for equal education. During the pandemic, the barriers they face have increased, said Helen Berberian, a deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Berberian told council members that 31%, or 8,300, of the 27,000 K-12 students in foster care in L.A. County schools have individualized education plans, which ensure that teachers, support staff and caregivers meet the needs of students with documented learning disabilities.

But in recent months their supportive services “are being deferred,” she said. “So, as we talk about equity and access within that milieu, we are very concerned.”

Berberian said she fears that the consequences of ignoring these services will affect students for years to come.

Pia Escudero, executive director of Los Angeles Unified School District’s Student Health and Human Services Division, acknowledged that schools have been operating in “crisis mode” during the pandemic. When schools closed in March, there was no consistency in instruction. Some teachers continued to teach virtually on a regular basis, while others did not.

This school year, which began this week for LAUSD, that has changed, with all teachers teaching online every school day. More stability for students will likely help them get the time with teachers and services they need, Escudero suggested.

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“The engagement is very different, and we are able to see who’s not logging on,” she said. “So, we’re working on those efforts of making sure everybody is engaged.”

This includes reaching out to students in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems who didn’t participate in distance learning in the spring or over the summer. Teachers can also receive and make calls virtually and, through a districtwide hotline, students and caregivers have been able to ask for referrals to food and shelter resources as well as for psychiatric and mental health services. Additionally, the district arranged to have wellness checks done on students having psychiatric emergencies and has contacted foster youth making the transition from high school to college.

During the 2020-21 school year, Escudero said, the district has new plans to improve its outreach to students, including giving more support to its early education students and kindergartners as well as working more closely with its special education division. This work includes the possibility of in-person, individual assessments, she said.

To that end, the California Department of Public Health recently announced new guidelines to return small groups of children to school if they have special education needs that distance learning can’t meet.

After COVID-19 forced schools to close in March, LAUSD completed more than 10,200 online meetings with caregivers of children who already have special education plans. However, district officials have reportedly told parents and caregivers that new assessments for learning disabilities can only be done in person, which has meant that many of those screenings have not happened for months.The Imprint reviewed a letter one parent received in May from the district stating that online assessments to determine eligibility for special education services “would significantly impact validity and reliability of any information collected.”

In addition to plans to assess students in person for special education services, the district is rethinking why some students are more likely to be referred to some services than others. Such disparities typically fall along racial lines.

“What we hope to do this year is launch a lot of data dialogue with school sites when we look at our special ed population,” Escudero said. “We overwhelmingly identify African American students for higher levels of care, so they’re overly identified in the emotional disturbance category, nonpublic schools and other intensive services.”

Because some students are overrepresented in these categories, Escudero said district officials will be investigating whether LAUSD needs to provide more early intervention to students, rather than referring them for “intensive” interventions later on.

For officials in the Antelope Valley, simply connecting with foster youth and their families has been an issue, according to Palmdale School District Superintendent Raul Maldonado. About 6%, or 800 to 1,000 students in the district, are foster youth, and ensuring that they make it to school has been difficult.

“We do need some help with reaching out to our families out there because there are many families that have not made contact with those schools, and sometimes it may be because the parent is an essential worker, and they have to go to work and they can’t make contact,” Maldonado said. “We’ve been making the rounds around the community with our vehicles just announcing to the community that the schools are open, please register your students.”

Howard, the UCLA professor, said it’s important for educators and child welfare officials, who tend to enjoy more social privilege than the families they serve, to serve the public with empathy. Moreover, concerns about mental health should not just focus on children but on their caregivers as well – from foster parents to instructional aides and counselors. These individuals are saying they feel exhausted, frustrated, and at their wits’ end, he said. It’s imperative that they’re not depleted as they take on the challenging task of serving vulnerable young people.

Ultimately, improving outcomes for caregivers and youth alike will require persistence, he advised public officials: “We cannot dismiss the fact that the communities who are already disenfranchised are experiencing even greater degrees of disenfranchisement, and I think the more we listen and learn from those families and those caregivers and those children about how we can be more impactful, I think the better.”

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Nadra Nittle
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.