Many special needs students left to own devices during coronavirus crisis, school districts scrambling to fill void

PLAINVILLE, MASS. (WHDH) - Despite COVID 19 closing schools, students with disabilities should be receiving special education services, in what state and federal education leaders call FAPE, a free and appropriate public education.

“It’s a lack of routine, he’s definitely been having his meltdowns from no structure,” says Sarah Collier, when asked to describe what life is like with her 7-year-old son Buddy, while school is closed for COVID 19.

Buddy is living with autism.

It’s so tough,” says Sarah. “Other children without special needs have their difficulties with it [understanding school closures], I’m sure, but then you take a child that really doesn’t have comprehension of what’s going on and it’s a mess.”

Buddy followed a strict routine in the Plainville School District, receiving physical therapy, occupational therapy, autism services and specialized instruction. His routine looks much different now.

“It’s been so difficult because I know the teachers have been trying to do like zoom meetings but it doesn’t remotely hold a candle to what he was getting on that IEP within the school,” says Sarah.

WHAT IS THE LAW?

Eileen Hagerty represents parents of children with special needs at the Kotin, Crabtree & Strong law firm.

She says all special needs children must be receiving a free and appropriate education under COVID 19 federal and state guidelines. The understanding is, of course, that the services will look different.

“Some of the special needs students can’t go a day or two without serious regression if they don’t receive their services,” says Hagerty. “While it’s important for every child to keep learning through school closure, for many children with special needs, it’s even more important to have that continuity of services as best as possible.”

But Eileen and fellow lawyer Dan Heffernan say the big problem is, every school district is doing things differently.

“Some were really following directives, sort of stepping up and providing extensive services, other school districts not so much,” says Heffernan.

Heffernan says he even has clients whose school districts have yet to reach out at all.

THE DEPARTMENT OF ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION

Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says that’s not okay.

He says school districts must communicate with their special education students.

“Keeping that communication link strong is important and it doesn’t have to be just by phone, it can be by email,” says Johnston.  “How do we set up a schedule in the home, how do we make sure we are reducing student anxiety and family anxiety in the home.?”

Johnston and his team have been releasing ongoing power points to help schools come up with new ways to do remote learning.

“We are wanting districts to learn from each other because we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel,” says Johnston. “There’s a lot of creative ideas flowing right now, and we want to make sure we bring them together.”

Sarah says her son has been receiving services, like written work, and Zoom classes, but she’d like to see some more remote services for her son.

“They (the teachers) are reaching out and providing a lot of classwork, like written work to do. For a kid like mine, he’s not really into it. He needs more that one to one social piece,” says Sarah. ” I think for children like mine, it’s more like hands-on and that’s so difficult with these circumstances. I would like to see more of the computer piece, more of the online teaching because my son was very responsive to see there and listen to them.”

IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR STUDENT RECEIVING SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES:

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has a Problem Resolution Hotline. Their number is 781-338-3700.  They encourage parents with concerns about receiving services, while school is closed, to call the number.

ONLINE TOOLBOX FOR PARENTS OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES

Here is the state’s new Resource Toolbox for parents of students with disabilities. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working on translating the toolbox and will put it online once it is done being translated.

Family Resource Toolbox SWD Covid 19 FINAL_4.9.20 by Brynne Connolly on Scribd

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