South Bay COVID-19 safety rally for those who work with students with special needs

People who work with Santa Clara County's special needs students say they need more protection, and flexibility to do their jobs safely.

About 20 members of SEIU Local 521 gathered in front of the Santa Clara County Education office in San Jose on Thursday morrning, to voice their concerns.

"COVID-19 is spiking across the nation and is at higher levels than when the county shut down in March. We cannot allow ourselves to think that worst is behind us," said Jeff Olshan, an environmental education specialist who works with special needs students.

SEIU Local 521 represents about 13,000  para-educators, occupational and physical therapists, teacher aides and administrative workers, who work for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

Since Oct. 5, 81 special needs students in the county have been allowed back in classrooms for in-person instruction and services at five different Santa Clara County schools. The county education office oversees 31 different school districts and 22 authorized charter schools.

Para-educators and therapists say they need more training on safety protocols, better cleaning procedures and the flexibility to work from home when they can.

"Curriculum development, lesson planning and professional development are examples of work we can do at home, that are not presently allowed," said Olshan.

"I think with the smaller number of students coming back for special needs instruction, we can do this safely with the proper safety protocols," said Sara Gianocaro, an occupational therapist.

She said she enjoys being back in the classroom with her special needs students, but that she and other para-educators and therapists need more staff.

"We know that in our classrooms with one or two students, our staff are able to follow the safety protocols," Gianocaro said. "But some of our classrooms that have seven students with autism, it's really busy and they're having a really hard time cleaning in between activities."

Gianocaro and other union members met with the Superintendent of Santa Clara County Office of Education last week. They are optimistic some of their requests can be met.  

In response to the rally this morning, the Santa Clara County Office of Education sent this statement, emphasizing the safety guidelines they’ve enacted so far: "Staff has worked diligently on plans for a slow, gradual and careful offering of in-person instruction in strict adherence to the CDPH guidelines and the SCC Public Health Guidelines. Less than 10% of SCCOE students have returned to in-person instruction."

The statement went on to say, "Schools provide students and families with access to support and services, some of which cannot be provided with virtual learning. It is vital that students who require programs and services that must be delivered in-person, have access to in-person learning and essential supports."

Next week, two additional Santa Clara County schools will bring back special needs students for part-time, in-person instruction.