Private Special Education Schools Are Closed Too. Some May Not Reopen.
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Claire Anderson’s parents worried that she didn’t understand what the coronavirus is or why she couldn’t go to school.
She is an 18-year-old student at the Peninsula School at The Faison Center in Newport News, a private day school for students with disabilities.
Claire has autism, is classified as nonverbal and has severe anxiety. When Gov. Ralph Northam closed the state’s schools on March 13, he also closed private schools, leaving thousands of students with disabilities that make regular public schooling difficult at home with their parents.
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Her father, Robert Anderson, tried to explain that there was an illness going around, that they didn’t want people to get sick.
“When he was finally able to get it through to her that nobody can go to school and nobody can go to work, and when she realized it was everybody, that seemed to help quite a bit,” her mother, Jennifer Anderson said.
Last school year, over 4,200 Virginia youth with disabilities were placed in private day schools. The schools themselves are private, but public school divisions and the state reimburse the schools.
The closure presents challenges for families, now tasked with leading their children’s specialized education, and schools, some of which worry they won’t survive the closure. Brian McGann, president and CEO of The Faison Center, said that some localities have stopped or want to reduce payments.
“People are going to have to start making staffing decisions if this is not answered immediately,” McGann said. “Private day schools need to know whether or not they’re going to have revenue to keep staff on to then be in a position to be able to open come mid-June.”
One school in Hampton Roads has already closed.
Oyster Point Academy, on J. Clyde Morris Boulevard less than half a mile from the Peninsula School, shut its doors permanently April 11.
First Home Care, the school’s parent company and a subsidiary of Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services, also discontinued its other community behavioral health services. According to an email from director of business development Lori Fagan, they’ll continue to provide therapeutic foster care services; other staff has been provided severance and outplacement help.
“We thank the staff for their expertise and dedication as they have delivered services to families,” Fagan said.
Students get placed at day schools at the recommendation of their individualized education program team, the group of school staff and other professionals who come up with learning strategies for students with disabilities.
Usually, it’s the students with the most difficult challenges that are recommended for day schools. Programs that teach academics in addition to life skills continue until they’re 22.
The number of students placed in private day schools increased 24 percent between fiscal year 2015 and last fiscal year, according to a report from the Virginia Office of Children’s Services (OCS).
Claire came to the Peninsula School after years of struggling with anxiety and aggression linked to that. She had been making progress recently, riding the bus back and forth to school despite intense car-related anxiety.
School closing presented a major disruption to her routine.
“She’s bored, like everybody else,” Jennifer Anderson said.
There’s a lot that she does at school that can’t be replicated. She had been working on going to the store and making purchases, something that’s no longer an option. At school, she walked two miles a day. Her parents have struggled to coax her outside, although the prospect of seeing a dog sometimes helps.
They also did regular social visits at school, like going to the mall or park, which is hard to do now.
“One of our fears is she may regress somewhat because of the quarantine, which is to be expected,” Robert Anderson said.
Adam Warman, vice president for program development at The Faison Center, said the instruction they provide has to look different than most public schools.
With each student having different needs, a single worksheet packet or single set of instructions to parents won’t cut it. They also have to consider how students will react to being asked by parents to do school work.
“They can get violent, they can get aggressive, they can get self-injurious and they can hurt themselves or other people,” Warman said. “For students like that, the biggest part of the challenge is how can we safely provide instruction to them that their parents can implement?”
The Andersons have come up with a new routine for Claire, something that she thrives on. It’s posted on the fridge every morning.
The morning starts off with helping make breakfast, followed by some “chill time” and then worksheets — mostly simple math, colors and shapes. They try to set up a FaceTime call with a friend, then a FaceTime call with her classroom’s lead instructor at school.
They’re trying to keep up their life skills lessons over video calls. Using vocabulary words, she showed her teacher how to make deviled eggs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while he cooked along in his kitchen. Pizza was next on the menu.
“She comes up with a grocery list for them,” Robert Anderson said. “They’ve been very inventive.”
McGann said that their staff is still working — speech therapists are helping students, behavioral therapists are analyzing information sent back from parents. But the question of how they’ll get paid is an increasingly looming question.
“In simplest terms, we have no revenue coming in, and we still have all overhead expenses to cover,” McGann said.
Most of the money for private special education services comes through the state Children Services Act. Last fiscal year, it spent over $185 million on day schools through the CSA, according to OCS — an average of $175 per child per day.
The state doesn’t directly pay that money to schools though. Along with other CSA funds, it’s managed by Community Policy and Management Teams (CMPTs) in each locality. The CPMTs authorize paying day schools, which negotiate rates for students with each locality with which they work. Localities supplement the state funds that are paid out by the CPMTs.
After Northam ordered schools to close for the remainder of the year on March 23, the Virginia Department of Education and OCS issued a guidance document about students covered by CSA funds.
The impact of closures is a local matter that localities and schools have to settle themselves, the agencies said. The money to reimburse localities is still there, and the agencies said that they aren’t issuing any guidance that would be a “barrier” for students in private settings from staying there.
McGann has sent two letters to the state board of education expressing his concerns about leaving the decision up to localities. He said that out of the 37 localities they have contracts with, there’s been a mix of stances.
Some aren’t paying. Some want to renegotiate. Some are paying in full. Some they haven’t heard from at all.
The issue came up at a board of education meeting on April 2. Board members and Secretary of Education Anne Holton said they were concerned about the industry collapsing and that the state wasn’t encouraging localities to stop paying schools because they weren’t providing face-to-face instruction.
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” McGann said. “All the while, we’re continuing to provide the exact same education virtually that public schools are doing for their students.”
The Peninsula’s two largest localities have said that they will continue to pay. A spokeswoman for Hampton City Schools said that they were not suspending payments to private day schools.
Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for Newport News Public Schools, said that the Newport News CPMT voted recently to authorize allowing payments through the end of the school year.
McGann hopes that when Northam’s stay-at-home order expires on June 10, they’ll be able to reopen the school quickly.
“This crisis and this change in education has truly devastated our families and unfortunately, I think, the students who are served in private schools have not had the spotlight on this has affected those families,” McGann said.
The Andersons aren’t worried about making it until schools reopen. They’re appreciating the extra time they’re spending together.
“If we have a good time as a family and do some maintenance activities, I think we’re okay with that,” Jennifer Anderson said. “That’s a good day.”
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