State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Appoints Former Illinois Special Education Leader Heather Calomese as New Director of Special Education Division

On behalf of the Arc and United Cerebral Palsy California Collaboration we welcome the new Director of Special Education, Heather Calomese. Director Calomese brings extensive experience in special education classroom teaching and administrative leadership as she was most recently the Executive Director of the Special Education for the Illinois State Board of Education. We look forward to working with Director Calomese and building a strong relationship for years to come.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Appoints Former Illinois Special Education Leader Heather Calomese as New Director of Special Education Division

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced today that he has appointed Heather Calomese as the new Director of the Special Education Division at the California Department of Education (CDE).

The Special Education Division provides information and resources to serve the unique needs of individuals with disabilities so that each person will meet or exceed high standards of achievement in academic and non-academic skills. As schools continue virtual learning in the weeks ahead, Calomese will support CDE’s efforts to provide assistance to schools and engage families end educators in ways that ensure the unique needs of students with disabilities are met.

“Heather is an accomplished leader in the special education field with a depth of knowledge regarding high-level special education laws and policies,” said Thurmond. “She is a strong advocate and champion for all students and believes that individuals should be lifted and supported to access the greatness that lies within. She brings to the position extensive experience with equity, human rights and social justice issues along with an unwavering focus and commitment to do what is best to ensure the needs of special education students and their families are being met. I am pleased to add an educator with her passion and dedication to the CDE leadership team.”

Calomese has worked in education for two decades. From 2000-02, she taught English and special education in Iowa City and from 2002-08 she was a special education middle and high school teacher in the Chicago Public School District before transitioning to an administrator role. Prior to joining CDE, Calomese was the Executive Director of Special Education for the Illinois State Board of Education where she focused on the alignment of systems and supports for students receiving Early Childhood, Multilingual, and Special Education services.

Calomese holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Iowa. She replaces Kristin Wright, who now works at the Sacramento County Office of Education. Calomese will start in her new position as Special Education Division Director on August 18.

Special Education and Distance Learning

As we await announcement of the State’s new Director of Special Education many families of special education and transition age students are voicing concern about the quality of instruction that will be delivered through distance learning. The new Special Education Director is supposed to be announced next week and we are hopeful that the concerns of parents and students related to distance learning and learning loss will be a top priority.  Without a doubt this is an exceptionally challenging time for students, families, teachers and instructional aides to figure out how to engage in a different learning format, style, routine, and mode of service delivery while making sure the Individualized Education Program (IEP) is being met and maintained.

As we begin the 2020-21 school year there have been several changes to the Education Code that include changes to requirements set forth in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Distance Learning, Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans, and Mitigating Learning Loss.

Among the changes, Education Code (section 56345) was recently amended to require that IEPs include a description of the means by which the IEP will be provided under emergency conditions, in which instruction or services, or both, cannot be provided to the pupil either at the school or in person for more than 10 school days. This description must be included in the development of each initial IEP or addressed during the regularly scheduled revision of an IEP, and must take public health orders into account. The California Department of Education has posted a list of frequently asked questions related to special education and distance learning, webinars, additional instruction related resources and information about changes to the Education Codes:

The Arc/UCP CA Collaboration looks forward to meeting the new Director of Special Education and working together to ensure the best possible outcomes for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in California.


Special Education, Social Distance, Distance Learning…

Nearly 800,000 students in California receive special education services and many parents/families/guardians are concerned and confused about how their child or loved one will receive those services in the upcoming school year due to COVID-19. With information changing daily it is difficult to say with certainty which school districts will begin the school year on-line with distance learning instruction, a hybrid model with some on-line and some in-person instruction, or all in-person instruction. The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, has been very clear that there is no “one-size” fits all approach to re-opening schools and that it depends on a combination of factors at the local level as to whether or not that particular school can re-open safely. On July 17, 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom issued guidance for schools as they consider how and when to have in-person instruction.

The guidance requires the following for in-person instruction:

  • The school must be in a local health jurisdiction that has NOT been on the county monitoring list within the prior 14 days
  • Masks are required for all students 3rd grade and above, and for all staff at the school
  • Students and Staff must practice physical distancing by being at least 6 ft apart
  •  Symptom checks will be in place
  • Schools will have handwashing stations, routine sanitation and disinfection processes, and quarantine protocols
  • Regular and rotating testing for cohorts of staff
  •  Contact tracers will prioritize schools

The guidance for distance learning includes:

  •  All students must have access to devices and connectivity
  • There will be a requirement for all students to have daily live interaction with teachers and other students
  •  Assignments need to be equivalent to in-person class assignments
  • Lesson plans for English learners and special education students must be adapted to meet the needs of the students

Plan for closure if students of staff test positive for COVID while in-person classes are being held:

  • The school with immediately consult with a public health officer in their local health jurisdiction
  • If there is a confirmed case in a class cohort then that cohort will be required to go home and follow protocols
  • The school will be required to stop in-person instruction if there are multiple cases (5% of school)
  • The district will be required to stop in-person instruction if 25% of school are prohibited from in-person instruction within a 14 day period

The monitoring list is county level data that is monitored by the California Department of Public Health to identify developing concerns related to curbing the spread of COVID. Elevated transmission, increasing hospitalizations and limited hospital capacity are the factors that are evaluated in order to determine whether or not a county is placed on the monitoring list. Information on county level data can be found here:

Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, President of the State Board of Education, said each district and office of education should have a plan in place to meet the needs of students with special needs. It is well recognized that some students have experience significant learning loss and over the summer teachers and instructional aides have received additional training on how to adapt curriculum and service delivery for families and students that are not able to receive in-person instruction. Many schools are set to return from summer break on August 17th and as we have seen a lot can change in a month. The state has invested an addition $5.3 billion to try to help address learning loss, inaccessibility of technology, and disparities related to COVID-19.

If your child or loved one receives special education services and you have questions about how their needs will be met in the upcoming school year, we encourage you to call your school district or county office of education and find out what their specific plan is. To learn more about the Framework for Reopening K-12 School in California visit:

Senators Feinstein and Harris Urge the Senate to Fund Special Education in Future COVID-19 Relief Efforts

Last week Senators Feinstein and Harris joined 23 of their colleagues in signing on to a letter urging Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Schumer to ensure that funding for special education and protection of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is included in all future COVID-19 relief efforts. In the letter the senators explicitly call for funding both during the shelter in place orders as well as funding that will help students transition back to in person learning once schools reopen stating:

“These service adjustments are not meant to be a one-to-one tradeoff for services missed during COVID-19, but a plan to help students get back on track if they have regressed. We must help ensure that students continue to progress during this pandemic, and we believe that any waiver of IDEA will undermine that objective.”

Read the full letter here.

Special Education in the Time of COVID-19

Education is being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic leaving families scrambling to ensure their children with disabilities do not get left behind. The following resources should help clarify the current situation.

DREDF put together this detailed resource which explains the current landscape and offers resources and suggestions for what we can do to improve things. We have excerpted it below, but please do follow the link to read it in full:

“The scale and scope of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly unprecedented. Parents are wondering how will shutdowns impact required timeline evaluations and meetings? At this early date, a great deal of confusion about what federal education and disability laws require remains, amplified by practical concerns about 1. what schools can actually provide, and 2. what families can actually access while students and staff stay at home.

Further complicating matters are reports that different school districts and even schools within the same district are answering these questions and responding to the challenges in delivering services differently. Concerns vary greatly – from the availability of quality internet connections, to needed equipment, training, translation and essential support remain unresolved as educators navigate this crisis.

One thing is clear: IF schools are operating and offering or requiring education, all students should be able to access it. How that gets done is a work in progress, and one that may take some time to sort out. What is important is the needs of ALL students, including students with disabilities who represent 14% of all students in our public schools, are part of the conversation and help devise workable solutions from the start…. (Read More)”

From the Department of Education:
Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities

From EdSource:
Despite assurances of flexibility, educators fear liability in online instruction of special ed students

LAO Releases Report on Special Education in California

On November 6, 2019 the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) released their report Overview of Special Education in California which aims to inform fiscal and policy discussions in light of the legislature’s requirement to come up with a number of reforms “to improve academic outcomes of individuals with exceptional needs.” Some of the expected reforms codified in last years budget bill (SB 75) include:

  1. The role of special education local planning areas (SELPA’s) in the delivery of special education services, including increasing their accountability and incorporating them into a statewide system of support.
  2. Expansion of inclusive practice to ensure that every individual with exceptional needs has access to learn in the least restrictive environment.
  3. Opportunities for school districts to receive state and federal support to address disproportionate identification and placement of African American and other student subgroups, as well as disproportionate rates of discipline.
  4. Review of how funds are allocated for special education programs.

Nearly 800,000 students in California receive special education services and the state spends $13 billion to provide those services. However, the report found that despite the level of spending students with disabilities are not faring so well as many school districts reported poor outcomes for their students with disabilities. The majority of students with disabilities in California were reported as having “relatively mild conditions” while at the same time the number of students with “relatively severe disabilities” increased notably. The notable increase in students with severe disabilities is largely due to a significant rise in the number of students with autism (now about 1 in 50 as compared to 1 in 600 20 years ago).

Among the findings in the report is the fact that the suspension rate for students with disabilities is almost double the statewide rate for all students. In addition, students with disabilities have high rates of absenteeism with almost 1 in 5 missing 10% or more of the school year. This finding is particularly alarming because if we want to improve academic outcomes we have to start by first making sure the students are in school.

The full report: