Parenting During a Pandemic: Oakland Mom Dina Kenna Says Services for Autistic Child Are Limited

An African American woman with glasses is smiling, next to a young boy wearing a hat.
Dina Kenna and her son, Amron. Amron is autistic, and Kenna said he is not getting enough support.

Oakland Voices is interviewing parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, public school students in Oakland have been in “crisis learning” and distance learning mode. We reached out to parents to explore struggles they may have, any benefits they see to distance learning, and support that they would welcome.

“They should have enough aides. It shouldn’t be a struggle.”

Since schools closed in mid-March due to the pandemic, teachers and parents report on the many difficulties they have had, such as acquiring laptops, accessing the internet, and children missing their friends and teachers. But, for children with learning disabilities and their families, any difficulties can be compounded, as has been the case with parent, Dina Kenna, and her family, who own a café, Kefa Coffee, in Jingletown. While school has been online and her children have been at home, Kenna and her husband have had to juggle their work schedules with caring for their children and supervising their online learning.  

Kenna has two elementary-grade children. Marco is in 3rd grade, is adjusting to online learning, and is able to do most of his school-related work on his own, with a little support from his parents from time to time.  Amron is in 5th grade and he has autism; he is on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Although Amron is unable to do the work of a 5th grader, he is in a regular 5th grade class because, in the special day classes that Kenna has visited in OUSD, she saw how children with autism are typically placed with children who have pretty serious behavior issues. She said that she is concerned that he will pick up their behaviors, such as “hitting somebody, banging his head on the wall, or throwing things, which is going to make life harder for him, right?” Also, the children in his 5th grade class at Sequoia Elementary School are very kind to Amron, which is important to Kenna.

Amron goes into the daily whole-class Zoom meetings to see his 5th grade friends, but doesn’t participate “because everything is beyond his capacity,” Kenna said. He also has one-on-one Zoom classes with an aide, who has worked with him since he was in kindergarten and with whom he enjoys working. “She’s very good,” Kenna said. However, Amron is unable to do much without his mother being beside him to help facilitate his online interactions with the aide

Learning at home during the pandemic has been fraught with difficulties for Amron’s family, most of it relating to getting access to the support of an aide that Amron is legally entitled to due to his condition.  All children with special needs are required to have an IEP (Individualized Education Program), intended to help the child succeed in school. Amron’s IEP specifies that he is to receive the help of an aide 240 minutes a day (four hours). However, “Because four hours of Zoom is too much for him,” Kenna agreed to reduce the contact time Amron has with his aide while in-person teaching is not possible.

Despite Kenna’s willingness to reduce the amount of time that Amron spends with his aide, there have been several days when he has not worked with the aide for the agreed-upon two hours. In late September, she was told that if she wanted Amron to have two hours with the aide, he would have to take just 30 minutes for lunch and a break because the district is short of aides and this was the only time she could fit him in. “For a kid with autism, he needs more than half an hour for lunch and a break. How fast do they have to eat their lunch? And then get on Zoom for another hour?” Kenna asked, adding, “That’s what I’m fighting for. I emailed the principal and she replied back saying they’re gonna try to do what’s right by him. They know I know my rights and they know what I’m asking is actually really, really fair, compared to what I could be asking for. Two hundred and forty minutes a day (four hours a day).” 

About six weeks after contacting the school, Dina attended an online IEP meeting. She was told that the district has approved at-home services provided by an outside organization for Amron three days a week while schools are closed. Although she is happy that the district has responded to her concerns, she has misgivings about in-home instruction. She is most concerned about the safety of her family during the pandemic. “Which one should I sacrifice? His health or his education?” she asked. She also pointed out that the instructor and Amron (and everyone else in the house at the same time) would have to wear masks and she doesn’t think that will work, given the importance of Amron being able to see the movement of lips, which is critical in speech and language learning and teaching. 

Another issue that Kenna has been concerned about relates to what counts as instruction. For example, on Thursdays, Amron has a 30-minute block of music with his 5th grade class. “He likes music and he learns songs really fast, but there’s no reason for an aide to be there,” Kenna said. “The reason they put her in there is because they have an obligation to fill out those minutes.  So they can say, ‘Oh, we had 30 minutes with Amron there.”

Other issues have affected how much time Amron has with his aide. For example, the aide has been pulled from working with him in order to help with distributing supplies to students and their families on Thursdays. Then, one Friday, Amron had only 90 minutes with the aide because “she said they’re working really hard, trying to make sure everyone is accommodated.” 

While Kenna is sympathetic to the needs of other students with learning disabilities, she also understands her son’s needs and legal rights to an education. “They should have enough aides. It shouldn’t be a struggle. School didn’t really start (this semester) until the fourth week (for Amron). He lost all that time because there was nothing for him to do because he didn’t get an aide until half way through the 4th week. The district knew this was going to happen. They’ve had all summer to figure this out,” Kenna said. 

All these issues are stressful for Kenna. “It shouldn’t be a struggle. I shouldn’t have to go through no sleep and a migraine because I have a child with autism,” she said.

Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway has lived in Oakland for over 35 years. She is a long-term educator — a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the above article.
    My grandson is also like Amron. He was in third grade in March when this pandemic appeared. Now he should be in the fourth. He used to get therapists from his medical insurance before the pandemic and was getting along quite well. Now they cannot come and he must be on line student. I cannot go to him on weekends now so I do not know his progress. But I am also worried that ids like him will fall through the cracks and left alone..

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