Even in the best of times, navigating through government bureaucracy can be challenging.
But for people with special needs, that becomes even more daunting during a global pandemic.
A virtual town hall hosted on April 29 by Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore and Pasco County School Board Chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin aimed at helping individuals and families find the resources they need, while managing life under new circumstances.
They were joined in the virtual town hall by panelists:
- Dr. Monica Verra-Tirado, chief of the bureau of exceptional student education and student services at the Florida Department of Education
- Darcy McDowell, director of student accessibility services at Pasco-Hernando State College
- Celeste Kellar, principal at Pepin Academies Pasco campus, a school that specializes in serving students with special needs.
Pasco Commission Chair Moore addressed issues of concern relating to services available from county government, while the other experts focused on education and related services.
Beaudoin offered reassuring words for parents.
“Some families have expressed concern about keeping the instructional momentum going at home and fear that their students will regress,” Beaudoin said. “Please try not to worry. There is a plan in place to address that.
“Pasco County Schools is prioritizing compassion and grace. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s teachers, if your family is feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. We all want what is best for all of our students. There is a lot of support that’s available to students and families.”
Questions also have been raised about how special services are being provided now, during this time of online learning.
Verra-Tirado addressed that issue.
She said the state has been clear that students are expected to continue to receive the special services they would receive in a traditional setting.
“The good news is that we’ve got a lot of new technologies that allow for the use of platforms, such as telehealth, in order for our teachers and therapists to provide a wide range — a continuum of services — in this very unique time,” Verra-Tirado said.
Kellar said Pepin Academies students “are still getting their necessary services that they need, through the tele-therapies. We are making sure that their accommodations are met,” she said, just like they would be in the classroom.
McDowell said Pasco-Hernando State College also is providing accommodations for students online.
“We have used Zoom a lot for our courses,” McDowell said, noting that allows face-to-face interactions.
Beaudoin said the Pasco school district is reaching out to families, individually about their services and therapies.
“I can say that my son did get his speech therapy this week, via Zoom,” she said.
If for some reason a family hasn’t already heard from their school, they should contact their school, she said.
The panelists also addressed the issue of parents trying to balance tele-working and the special education needs of their son or daughter.
Verra-Tirado addressed that question: “I can tell that’s been the main comment that I’ve received from parents during this time.
“My advice to them is that they need to balance what they’re doing with what their children are doing.
“It takes them being scheduled, just like their children are being scheduled.
“Schedule the more difficult work their child is doing, when their workload is not as heavy.
“That’s real stressor for a lot of our families. I’ve told them, it’s not worth stressing out for. We’re going to try to balance it as best we can.”
McDowell, who has a daughter with autism, offered this advice: “Take breaks.”
“We’ve just taken it one day at a time, and honestly, what’s really worked for me is reaching out to friends and family,” McDowell said, noting she belongs to a Facebook group for moms with kids with special needs.
Beaudoin advised parents to break down the work into manageable chunks, and to schedule the work in a way that works best for them.
“Keep in mind, we have a lot of flexibility. Just reach out to your child’s teacher. Our administrators and our teachers know that they have flexibility, and they’re going to work with families.
“Don’t wait until you’re feeling so frustrated and upset. Just reach out and you can make adjustments,” Beaudoin said.
She also recommended seeking out support groups, which can provide excellent information about resources that are available.
Provide opportunities to ‘virtually socialize’
Others asked for guidance on how to keep kids motivated, and how to create opportunities for them to interact with friends, while away from school.
As for socializing, McDowell said her daughter Skypes with friends and in-laws, and plays online games.
Her daughter also interacts with others via phone, Chat, Zoom and FaceTime.
Having ways for students to see each other and their teacher is important, Kellar said.
“That social aspect of education is a huge part, that you forget about it sometimes, you’re so concentrated on getting the curriculum,” she said.
Verra-Tirado agreed: “We’re hearing that all over the state. That can completely change a youngster’s day.”
When students are able to see teachers and friends, it’s reassuring to students, she said.
If parents or grandparents don’t know how to work the technologies, they should reach out to their schools. They can help families, the education experts said.
Another question was posed regarding whether students can repeat the grade.
The experts said that requires a close evaluation before a determination could be made.
Beaudoin put it this way: “That is a major decision and one that should not be made lightly.”
Commission Chairman Moore touched on some issues of interest to the elderly, and also regarding people requiring a special needs shelter, in the event of a hurricane.
He responded to a question relating to senior citizens who have disabilities who do not have access to a computer for ordering groceries.
“We have a nonprofit here in Pasco County called CARES and they’re offering grocery service for seniors over 60 years old. The service itself is free, but the senior prepares a grocery list or a loved one at home helps prepare that grocery list, and they do pay for their groceries. They’re also providing care packages and toiletries,” he said.
To find out more, call (727) 862-9291.
Moore also told viewers that Pasco County Senior Services also provides meals.
The commission chairman also said: “It is getting close to hurricane season. Now is the time if you or a loved one or a child has special needs, to go ahead and register for the special needs program when it comes to evacuations.”
To find out more about having groceries delivered, call (727) 862-9291.
To find out more about senior services, call (727) 834-3340.
To register for special needs evacuation, go to the county’s website at PascoCountyFl.net.
Resources for families with special needs
Florida Diagnostic & Learning Resources System (FDLRS) is a valuable resource for students with disabilities. The main page is http://www.fdlrs.org
Within FDLRS there are virtual webinars parents can attend and there are also recorded webinars posted: http://www.fdlrs.org/virtual_webinar_resources
Here’s the parent toolbox and live chat options with FDLRS: http://www.livebinders.com/b/2646931
Here’s the parent toolbox for Pasco: http://www.livebinders.com/b/2646931
Melissa Musselwhite, director of student support services in Pasco County Schools, has recorded a video specifically for families of students with disabilities. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyGBas2jsAo
All school District videos are here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg2EPgrZtxyZPdaprLgSqpQ
Other helpful resources:
- Family Network on Disabilities (FND)- Local Parent Support Network staff member: Tosha Littles via email: or call (800) 825-5736.
Published May 13, 2020