How One School For Fragile Kids With Disabilities Navigated COVID-19 Closures

MIAMI — Every Monday, dozens of Early Beginnings Academy parents log on for a virtual town hall to get some face time with the small charter school’s principal.

During a recent event, one of the parents — an emergency room nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital — shared her first-hand experience seeing the havoc COVID-19 wreaks on an infected person’s body.

Principal Makeesha Coleman said one reason she asked the nurse to speak to her fellow parents was to reinforce the importance of taking precautions: Avoid large groups. Wear masks. Take the virus seriously.

Coleman said two parents of students at the school have died from COVID-19. So far, though, there hasn’t been a positive case among students or staff members — except one over the summer, when the campus was closed, according to Coleman. Miami-Dade County Public Schools does not report positive cases at charter schools on its district-wide dashboard.

Coleman needs to keep cases at zero. All of her 130 students have disabilities, and about a quarter of them are medically fragile.

“During this time, I've had at least four students who have been hospitalized, two students who are currently in the hospital for surgeries,” Coleman said during an interview in mid-January.

“I serve the most significantly cognitively impacted or medically impacted students in the district.”

Makeesha Coleman at their desk
Makeesha Coleman is principal of Early Beginnings Academy, a charter school that enrolls some of the most medically fragile children in Miami-Dade County. (Michael Anderson/WLRN)

Charter schools are technically public schools, funded with taxpayer dollars, but they are operated by private organizations. Early Beginnings, located near Jackson, is run by United Community Options of South Florida, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities in the region.

When schools shut down last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the closures were especially difficult for families of children with disabilities or severe medical conditions.

Then came perhaps an even tougher dilemma: what to do when schools reopened in the fall. For the students at Early Beginnings, the stakes of going to school — and the stakes of staying home — are especially high.

While school shutdowns during the pandemic meant a lot of parents had to try to be teachers, COVID-19 required many Early Beginnings parents to be speech therapists and occupational therapists, as well.

“For our families, the biggest struggle was trying to find the balance of: I now have to train my child at home, … and I may not have all the skills,” Coleman said.

“A lot of our parents rely on us to provide those academic skills, those life skills, because they don't necessarily know how to do the unique things a special education program does.”

For example, some disabled students as old as 8 are still potty training, Coleman said.

“They were in that process at school, and now mom doesn't know, or dad doesn't know, how to do it at home,” she said. “So we had to figure those things out with our families, alongside them.”

Makeesha Coleman during an interview
Image of the classroom window
Principal Makeesha Coleman, left, reworked the school’s budget and took advantage of some additional federal relief funding to arrange at-home therapies for the neediest students at her school. Early Beginnings reopened in the fall for in-person classes. (Michael Anderson/WLRN)

Because of the school’s special relationship with United Community Options, Coleman was able to find a way to get her neediest students help at home.

The school received about $22,000 in funding from the federal CARES Act, an aid package that provided relief to schools, businesses and individuals earlier during the pandemic.

With that extra money, and some staffing adjustments — Coleman said she no longer employs the same number of people for before- and after-school care or on-call shifts — she was able to afford at-home physical and occupational therapy for about 13% of her students.

She said some behavioral therapists and home health aides were also able to assist students with the technology required for virtual classes.

“We want to make it equitable,” Coleman said. “We talk with all of our families to let them know the resource [is available] — and to let them know our limitations.”

Now, about two-thirds of Coleman’s students are back in face-to-face classes, while the rest continue to learn virtually from home.

The classroom door
Blackboard with the writing you are respected... you are loved... on it
Positive messages adorn the doors at Early Beginnings Academy in Miami. (Michael Anderson/WLRN)

Maria Isabel Otero chose to send her fourth grader, Gabriel Sanchez, back to school. She found it nearly impossible balancing her son’s care and her full-time job.

“It was one of the worst times of the year. And I think it was the worst time for me in caring for Gabriel as a parent,” Otero said.

“You are always trying to find ways for them to acquire skills, which is a progression much longer than with any other children. … Imagine trying to do that when you have to meet the basic needs for school and for therapy,” she said.

Gabriel, 10, has the rare genetic disorder Bainbridge-Ropers syndrome. He is on the autism spectrum, non-verbal, not fully potty trained and has low muscle tone, so he struggles with physical activity. He receives speech, physical, occupational and behavioral therapy.

When schools closed, “I didn't see a regression in his behaviors, but definitely everything was stalled there, and it affected him very much,” Otero said.

Maria Isabel Otero
Video cover image: Maria Isabel Otero’s son Gabriel Sanchez has a rare genetic disorder called Bainbridge-Ropers syndrome. He goes to school and receives specialized therapies to help him with behavior, movement and speech at Early Beginnings Academy. (Michael Anderson/WLRN)

During that time, Otero would take videos of Gabriel walking in Greynolds Park in North Miami Beach. She would then send the videos to his teachers, to show that he was keeping up with his physical education.

“Jumping, for him, is work. It’s not something that he enjoys, as any other child,” Otero said. “He loves walking, and he loves a park that has a little hill. So we go up the hill, and then we sit down there and … look at the park from that high.”

One thing that helped convince Otero to send Gabriel back to school: While he has struggled with social interaction in the past, Otero learned that Gabriel has a “best buddy” at Early Beginnings. That made it worth the risk.

For Gabriel, “school is more than what school is for a neurotypical child,” Otero said.

“He needs his school.”

WLRN education reporter Jessica Bakeman contributed reporting for this story.

Funding for “Class of COVID-19” was provided in part by the Hammer Family Charitable Foundation and the Education Writers Association.

Gabriel walking up a hill
Gabriel Sanchez loves going for walks in Greynolds Park in North Miami Beach. He often went there to exercise when school buildings were closed, to make up for missing physical education classes. Here, he’s holding his sister Miranda del Sol’s hand. (Photo courtesy of Maria Isabel Otero)
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