MARICOPA — Six-year-old Kaela Leonard is a happy kid. She loves to play, hang out with her brother and parents, Julie and Scott Leonard, and is known to be a little mischievous sometimes.

She also has microcephaly, moderate intellectual disability, epilepsy and is both non-verbal and non-ambulatory. During the day, she uses a wheelchair.

“On her report cards, nothing looks good on there because she’s so developmentally behind,” Julie Leonard said. “But they say she is a great eater. She knows where her food is, she goes right for it, so we had a really good laugh that she excels in food.”

Kaela gets an A-plus in lunchtime from her teachers, but the first grader struggles in most other subjects. This year, she and her 11-year-old brother both went back to school online full-time.

“It’s better for our older one, but he’s pretty self-sufficient,” Leonard said. “He’s really not had much of any problems. It’s our daughter, she’s been just so left behind.”

When Kaela attends school in person, she plays music and works on various goals and therapies with her teachers. But she hadn’t been back to school since early March. When school resumed online, Kaela was expected to keep up with traditional first grade school work like social studies and math, which is beyond her current abilities.

“None of these apply to our daughter,” Leonard said. “She doesn’t respond to her name. She has a very short attention span. Her receptive language skills are like a 2-month-old baby’s. They didn’t take into account that what she was doing in school is just not even in the ballpark of what they expect a normal first grader to do.”

Kaela headed back to school Aug. 17 to resume some in-person learning with modifications. As part of Executive Order 2020-51, Gov. Doug Ducey mandated the need for accessible education for students with disabilities like Kaela.

“That order basically said that we must serve our students with exceptional needs who may not be making progress in the general ed program,” Teri Louer, director of Exceptional Student Services for Maricopa Unified School District, said in a board meeting Aug. 12. “These are students that require that in-person learning be provided as free and appropriate public education.”

Each school team analyzed the Exceptional Student Services students’ needs to determine if the child was in need of further support through in-person learning based on the rate of improvement they would make.

Louer said MUSD sent out 310 invitations to parents of ESS students to join in-person learning. There were 179 parents who responded, and 103 said yes. Of those, 46 are preschool students. MUSD will provide bussing for students like Kaela, who utilizes a wheelchair lift to get on and off the bus.

Leonard was happy at the idea of having her daughter back in classes, but the worry of COVID-19 looms.

“Honestly the only solution to our particular situation is to have her in class,” Leonard said. “It’s such a difficult situation because so many of these children are medically fragile on top of having all of this need for therapies. We’re lucky that our daughter really isn’t in the medically fragile group. She does get sick very easily, but generally she gets over things.”

It’s also the teachers that Leonard worries about, especially in classrooms for students with special needs.

“The teachers have been wonderful and I’m sure they’re feeling at least as frustrated about everything as we are right now,” Leonard said. “I hope they will at least get hazard pay for this. Because, especially in the special-needs classrooms, my daughter drools a lot, so these teachers are going to be exposed to whatever’s going around.”

Maricopa High School special education teacher Kayla Colling understands that sentiment, and it’s a thought that has gone through her head as she tackles online learning for her students. Kids in life skills or self-contained classes were similarly allowed to resume in-person schooling at MHS, while around 50 students attending online school via MUSD’s learning lab are seated in the school cafeteria. For now, however, Colling’s classes will remain online.

Still — nothing beats the smiling faces of her students.

“It was just so refreshing to see the faces of my students … just talking to them again, since it had been a while and just seeing their faces even though it’s through a computer screen,” said Colling. “You don’t realize how much you really do miss work when you don’t have a choice.”

She has taught at MHS for four years and is a seasoned, dual-certified instructor. At MHS, she teaches primarily English and reading skills to her resource students.

“I’m trying to make the best of it,” Colling said. “I like that MUSD really has been working on this since COVID hit first thing in March. ... Personally, technology is not something I’m 100% comfortable with, but I really appreciated the updated training.”

Colling recognizes the same Catch-22 that Leonard is experiencing. Students with disabilities learn best through hands-on instruction, but hands-on instruction could turn deadly for a medically fragile student should they contract COVID-19.

“Unfortunately for a lot of my resource students, they are very much like me in the sense that we’re visual, hands-on learners,” said Colling. “So even though it is keeping everyone safe right now, which is the biggest priority, they really do need to be face-to-face with their peers.”

Another aspect is the teachers themselves. Some of whom are also immunocompromised and worry about contracting the illness, or spreading it to students.

“Right now with our numbers the way they are in Arizona, I really don’t feel comfortable going back face-to-face. Unfortunately, being an essential worker, I understand that that day may come where I’m just told,” Colling said. “I will say that our admin team has been very understanding and asking us every week who is comfortable coming in, who wouldn’t be comfortable? … I do feel like my voice is heard, and that means the world.”

In the meantime, Colling said she is finding creative ways to teach online and, despite the occasional technological hiccup, things are going well. Even virtually, her students, parents and coworkers have managed to make her feel the community support from her home computer.

“I feel like the community has really come together. It’s definitely not easy,” Colling said. “I really hope that the community continues to be patient and supports us and works with us because we are in this together — truly. Even though technology and other resources are not always up to par, we are all mindful of this and just doing the best and I know that our end goal is to be back safely together once again, face to face.”

MUSD has outlined additional information for what happens when a student or teacher tests positive. Read more about that protocol on the MUSD BoardDocs page.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.

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