Parents, Educators Split Over Resuming In-Person Special Education
NEW YORK — Parents and education officials are sharply divided over the possibility of resuming in-person education for students with disabilities after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing districts to restart face-to-face special education instruction for the summer.
Roughly 40,000 students with disabilities who attend specialized District 75 schools get extra instruction during the summer as part of their legally-mandated special education services — support the New York City Education Department has been planning on providing virtually.
Parents of some of those students are desperate to resume in-person teaching and therapy after watching their kids lose valuable academic, social and emotional ground during remote learning.
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“Our kids need to get back into school, it’s ridiculous. They’re not learning anything,” said a Bronx mom of a teen with autism who asked not to be identified to protect her child’s privacy.
But other parents say the health risks of restarting class this summer are simply too great — and even greater for students who may be more medically vulnerable to start, and less able to speak out about safety concerns.
“I’m just super scared,” said Grisel Cardona, the mother of a 9-year-old with autism in the Bronx. “Regression is something I’m concerned about. At the same time, health comes before all that.”
She worries about her son’s ability to comply with safety protocols like wearing a mask and maintaining social distance.
“For District 75 there’s no such thing as social distancing,” she said. “There are kids who require that one-on-one paraprofessional, kids who bite.”
The final decision rests with the New York City Education Department.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza expressed deep reservations in a tweet last week about sending students with disabilities back to class so soon.
The schools chief sent a sharp Twitter rebuke to state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R—Staten Island), who renewed her call to resume in-person special education, citing the concerns of Staten Island parents.
“So with all the shifting knowledge of how this virus is spreading … we now want to experiment with our most vulnerable students … Hmmm,” Carranza responded.
Carranza’s tweet sparked backlash from some parents and teachers who said it brushed aside legitimate concerns about halted educational progress.
“The tone of this response is flippant and dismissive at a time when parents need you to be supportive and understanding,” wrote one teacher.
Carranza struck a more conciliatory tone in a subsequent tweet, telling parents of children with disabilities that “We are here for you. I know students who receive intensive in-person services haven’t had them for 11 weeks. We must & we will serve their needs as soon as possible + ensure health & safety at the same time.”
The transition to virtual teaching has been especially disruptive for students with disabilities — many of whom rely on the routines and social interactions of school to build foundational skills.
Some special education services — including one-on-one therapy sessions — have shifted online amid the pandemic, but parents say they don’t always happen on schedule, and can’t replace in-person support.
The Bronx mom of the teen with autism said her son received speech therapy twice a week during school, but has been averaging only one virtual session a week during remote learning.
“All of a sudden, the rug was just pulled from under him,” she said. The teen has become less verbal and more behaviorally aggressive in the months he’s been out of class.
Aaron Jackson, a teacher at a specialized special education public school in the South Bronx said he and his colleagues “definitely” want to return to in-person teaching, “if we had some kind of protocols.”
Just what that might look like this summer is still an open question.
Some parents and officials have suggested prioritizing one-on-one therapies over traditional classroom instruction to limit exposure. Others suggested using Regional Enrichment Centers for kids of essential workers, which are already set up for social distancing, rather than returning kids to their traditional school buildings.
Further complicating matters: thousands of students with disabilities depend on specialized school buses with trained chaperones to get to class. But school bus companies shut down operations and furloughed workers after the city stopped paying out contracts.
Carranza penned a letter to state officials asking for further guidance.
A state Education Department spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing Carranza’s letter, and pointed to guidance from Cuomo’s office. The document advises districts to require masks for staff, “encourage … but not require” them for students, maintain six feet of separation, implement mandatory health screenings like temperature checks, and limit kids to groups of ten, among other measures.
That laundry list of preparations seems too steep an obstacle to clear by early July, when summer classes start, said Christine Buccinna, the mom of an elementary-schooler with autism in Brooklyn.
“How is this going to happen logistically?” she said. “I fear everyone is going to get sick right away.”
Buccinna desperately wants her son to return to class after watching him struggle with the isolation of remote learning.
But she said years of fighting tooth and nail for their children’s educational rights has left many parents of kids with special needs deeply distrustful that school decisions are being made with their kids’ best interests in mind — a worry that’s especially pronounced when the stakes are so high.
“We always take what we’re given with a grain of salt,” she said.
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