Abigail Ogo rises out of bed about 5:30 a.m. each weekday. She walks the short distance to the kitchen and prepares breakfast for her family. The children wake up about an hour later, eat the meal lovingly crafted by Mom and get ready for the day ahead – by all accounts, a normal morning routine for families across the island.
But entering the Ogo residence serves as a quick reminder of some not-so-normal circumstances. A handheld thermometer sits just beyond the doorway, while a glance to the side reveals a living room overtaken by classroom paraphernalia.
A large calendar – colorfully decorated with the month, day, weather and a handful of turkeys – stands beside a portable shelf packed with pencils, pens, markers and other teaching supplies. A midsize whiteboard rests against a flat-screen TV. Several notebooks sit inside a basket on top of a small wooden table while schoolwork is piled neatly over folding tables being used as a desk.
With Guam schools still closed over COVID-19 concerns, many parents have had to double as teachers, even if only to help with online learning or hard copy lessons. It has been a somewhat traumatic experience, Abigail Ogo said.
"I even got myself a lesson planner. With that it helps me with the kids and the boys and their lessons every day, just so I don't go insane with where I start," she said.
But in addition to home schooling, the mother of five is also one of many parents on island navigating the pandemic with the unique challenge of raising a child with autism.
There are 244 children within the Guam Department of Education with autism, but that represents only public school students. Josephine Blas, president of Guam Autism Community Together, estimates there might be around 500 children with autism on island.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can impact social, emotional and communication skills to varying degrees. Individuals with ASD may not want to stray from repeated daily patterns and may learn in ways different from their peers.
'It was really tough'
COVID-19 has certainly proven disruptive, shuttering schools and hampering businesses and other institutions in what has been termed the new normal. Some children with ASD have been able to cope more than others, Josephine Blas said. Her own child, Joseph, had more difficulty adjusting to online learning.
"He doesn't understand why he has to look at a screen. ... We had to keep modifying it just to get him long enough to go through a lesson," she said. "My son needs the interaction, so that's been a big concern for him."
Lessons were broken down into five- or 10-minute segments. Sometimes they lasted just one minute with breaks in between, according to Josephine Blas.
"Our children thrive on routine," she said. "Putting him on a bus and having him go to school and doing his routine at school, he already had that in his mind that that's what he does every day. And then, when we suddenly have to change to virtual and having him stay home, there was no routine there. There was just a lot of meltdowns, it was really tough."
Despite his teachers' accommodations, without his normal routine serving as a foundation, Joseph Blas began to reverse his progress, Josephine Blas added. But in late October, the Department of Defense Education Activity, of which Joseph Blas is a student, reopened its doors to face-to-face instruction. That was a "game-changer," Josephine Blas said.
"He was able to pick up where he left off. Although they've had to go back and review some of the progress he made last year, it was a lot easier because he's face-to-face," she said.
The same isn't available for the remainder of Guam schools, which follow a standard of readiness under the government of Guam, different from DODEA which is under the U.S. Department of Defense.
'I think every family that's doing this, they're feeling it'
Abigail Ogo sat with her 13-year-old son, Donicio Ogo Jr., in their living room on a late mid-November morning, just as they did on other weekdays. They were working on a categorization assignment, identifying different things as people, places and the like.
"How about a dictionary?" Abigail Ogo asked. Donicio Ogo seemed to struggle a little. Abigail Ogo reached behind her and pulled out a small CHamoru dictionary. "So where does this go? Equipment, subject, place or people?" she said.
"Equipment," Donicio Ogo said with confidence.
"Good job," his mother affirmed.
Donicio Ogo is Abigail Ogo's only child with ASD. Her children range from second to 10th grade and, for her younger children, Donicio Ogo included, Abigail Ogo chose GDOE's hard copy learning option.
But for Abigail Ogo, that sometimes means getting overwhelmed with learning different grade level material all over again, and she admitted it has been challenging knowing whether she is teaching her children correctly.
"It's hard. I think every family that's doing this, they're feeling it," Abigail Ogo said surrounded by her makeshift classroom.
She thought of placing Donicio Ogo in online classes, but decided there would be little difference.
"He actually needs to be sitting there face-to-face and be able to see the teacher," Abigail Ogo said.
Donicio Ogo also relies on routines and, while he is adjusting, there are still many distractions at home, his mother said. If GDOE classes are able to open again with precautions, Abigail Ogo would have Donicio Ogo return to traditional instruction, but said she would have lingering concerns about his health and safety.
"Honestly, I feel there has to be a compromise. For them to get the best education they need to be prepared in general, I think there has to be," Abigail Ogo said.
GDOE risk assessments
Guam continues to report significant numbers of COVID-19 cases, and GDOE Superintendent Jon Fernandez stated earlier that the island appeared to be moving in the opposite direction of where it needs to be.
GDOE's current risk assessments place public schools at the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission. Although the 14-day positivity rate is down to 10.4%, that is still twice the targeted risk level, according to the latest assessment.
The department has eyed January 2021 as a potential reopening date and anticipates a decision in December 2020 on whether that can happen.
Part of that decision will rely on input from the community, and GDOE hosted several stakeholder meetings two weeks ago to share plans and gather feedback. The presentation on Nov. 20 focused on special education.
Speaking during the virtual meeting, one grandparent was concerned about his grandchildren, who have ASD, because they refuse to wear masks. That can be a concern for other parents as well, he said.
"We don't expect that there's a magic wand," said Neil Rochelle, program coordinator for GDOE's Division of Special Education.
"I think ideally what we're hoping for is that with our most challenged students is ... for the 20 minutes, 15 minutes that the student is with the provider ... that they could tolerate a mask for that short a time," Rochelle said.
Fernandez, who attended the meeting, said masks will be challenging across the board for younger students. But once the island gets to the point of being able to return to school, the other challenge is understanding how many will want to return, and how that speaks to other safety measures, he said.
While many parents were concerned about the pandemic moving into the school year in August, parents of students with disabilities were also concerned with increasing opportunities for face-to-face meetings, because schools are the best place to deliver services, according to Fernandez.
COVID-19 cases increasing near the beginning of the school year shot down GDOE plans for traditional instruction, at least for the time being, but that initial interest is why the department wanted to touch base with the special education community.
'It's a tough balancing act'
Fernandez also spoke to The Guam Daily Post a few days before the special education meeting.
"It's a tough balancing act and we recognize the needs of our kids but we have to balance that against the overall safety of our students and employees," he said at the time.
It has been difficult serving students with disabilities in the current environment, not just in Guam, the superintendent acknowledged. The general approach has been to determine workable interim services, Fernandez added.
But in the event that schools will have to stay closed longer, some families have asked to consider limited face-to-face classes for students with special needs, Fernandez said.
"That's something that I'm having our task force look at so that we can determine whether it's something we can do or not," Fernandez told the Post.
There are a lot of risks associated with sending employees to people's homes for services, and no such request has been granted, he said. These requests have been few and far between, but GDOE has received more requests to find ways to return to school, even if it will only be for a small number of priority groups, Fernandez said.
Liz Calvo, another parent of a child with ASD, said a key factor to success for families of children with autism is support from schools and open communication between parents and teachers. That's been the case for her at Agana Heights Elementary School. But Calvo said she also has the "luxury" of time to focus on her children's education.
If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, Calvo said, it's that she's been able to spend more time with her children, and she admitted she'll miss that opportunity if and when the island leaves behind the new normal.