With the anticipated July 2 start date for District 75 and Extended School Year summer programs around the corner, thousands of the city’s most structure-dependent students are sinking further into an education limbo.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an initial plan for 12-month special education students last month that includes up to five-and-a-half hours of remote instruction, five days a week.
Under the governor’s executive order, schools must follow state-issued guidelines in order to open up for summer. Districts are advised to take measures such as requiring masks for staff and encouraging their use by students, maintaining six feet of separation in the building, and implementing mandatory health screenings.
Response from parents and educators regarding in-person learning this summer has been a mixed bag, but Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is hesitant to give the green light, citing health concerns.
The Department of Education (DOE) is currently exploring its options for the upcoming summer session, taking into account safety provisions when it comes to transportation, PPE and other aspects of opening schools.
Nearly 39,000 students in New York City receive year-round special education services, usually because they are at high risk of regressing if they are not continued over the summer. Many of these students attend District 75 programs, which are designed to serve those with the most profound disabilities.
Concerned by signs of regression they are already seeing as a result of gaps in remote learning, some parents are anxious to get students back face-to-face with service providers.
“I can see parents wanting special education students to learn in person,” said Annie Tan, a fifth-grade special education teacher in Sunset Park, not shy to mention that the remote learning she is facilitating does not effectively replace in-person teaching. “But it makes me furious that they would put our kids, who are more likely to be immunocompromised, more likely to be low-income or students of color, on the front line like that.”
Though she is not a District 75 teacher, Tan says safety would be paramount to any attempt to return to school. Furthermore, she says, parents, students, teachers and administrators would all need to be “100 percent in” on a thorough plan put in place by DOE, a feat Tan does not have faith the department can accomplish.
“We’ve all just been working through a sense of chaos and waiting for de Blasio, the chancellor and Cuomo to say anything related to education,” explained Tan, who teaches a classroom of 12 students, all with special needs. “It’s actually been really hard as a teacher to plan anything even a week in advance.”
After finding out only the Sunday night before that schools would close on March 16, teachers were asked to make a speedy transition to distance learning.
Two days later, Tan and the other special education teachers at her school were asked to complete Remote Learning Plans, documents which would “translate” each student’s IEP services to a remote setting.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts are required to provide appropriate services within a certain time frame to any child deemed eligible for special education.
The details of how those services will be distributed to meet a particular student’s needs are laid out in an IEP, or Individualized Education Program. They include academics, as well as related supports like physical, occupational and speech therapy.
According to DOE, more than 100,000 families of students with disabilities have consented to remote services. There are roughly 228,000 students in the city receiving special education services under IEP’s.
Normal circumstances require for parents to be involved in any meetings pursuant to changes in their child’s IEP As such, advocates say parents should have been granted direct input in the process of compiling Remote Learning Plans.
However, the transition to distance learning was notably lacking in comprehensive guidelines and benchmarks usually employed by DOE when it comes to compliance, leaving the implementation of Remote Learning Plans up to the discretion of special education teachers and related service providers.
Educators were asked to “share and discuss” the plans with parents in order to obtain consent for remote services and teletherapy. Tan remembers being pushed by her principal and DO, to have parents sign off verbally on Remote Learning Plans and log those interactions into a department database.
She says the parents in her school were not given official documents outlining what could and could not be accomplished by teletherapy, only an over-the-phone explanation of educators’ intentions and plans to roll over IEP's to a remote format.
“It was almost as if the Remote Learning Plan was a checkmark that we had to do, rather than something really thoughtful that we did in collaboration with parents,” said Tan, “because there just wasn’t time.”
At the time schools closed, Tan describes much attention going toward distributing her classroom’s share of the more than 79,000 iPads with data plans that were delivered to special education students across the city for their engagement with remote learning, some of which did not arrive until April 30.
A lot of time was also spent ensuring that students and their parents were able to access Google Classroom, the main platform being used for distance learning.
The Brooklyn special education teacher says that a huge part of working with students with disabilities is the relationship that develops between the kids and herself.
She is working nonstop to maintain that connection, constantly checking in with students and their families in order to provide the support they need based on their personal circumstances during this global pandemic.
At the same time, parents, who as adults are dealing with the economic and emotional burden of these unprecedented times, are now balancing roles as de facto educators with their own jobs, in addition to being caretakers for their children. And for parents of students with disabilities, learning to be a special education provider presents an even greater challenge.
“I had to make the decision early on as to what pieces of this I would attempt,” admitted Julia Olsheski, mother to an autistic second grader receiving special education in Queens. “I don’t know what the consequences are, but my son is getting a small percentage of his assignments completed.”
At school, Olsheski’s son has a full team of professionals, including speech, occupational and physical therapists, as well as a one-to-one paraprofessional. These days, school starts at 5 p.m., when Olsheski is able to clock out of her day job and after she cooks dinner for the family.
“I did not wake up and become a special needs teacher, nor could any one person replace his entire team,” she said, echoing the concerns of many special education parents, whose children are at the greatest risk of falling behind, fighting to cope with the loss of routine and access to social interactions.
For example, a student with autism, a social and communication disorder, might have IEP goals that include terms such as “can tolerate taking turns” or “can exchange social greetings with a peer,” milestones that cannot be worked toward in the context of social distancing and isolation.
On top of that, it is undeniable that certain services do not translate well into a digital space or are nearly impossible to provide virtually, particularly for students who struggle with attention and eye contact.
In many cases, parents have waived their children’s physical and occupational therapy sessions, unconvinced of how effective they would be.
Olsheski, like other parents of special needs children, is extremely fearful watching her son continue to backslide into what could be a massive regression, wondering what it would take for his progress to be recovered.
“He’s doing some things we hadn’t seen in years,” she explained, adding that it can take six months for a student in her son’s position to gain back ground lost in just one month.
It is entirely unclear if waived services will ever be made up, or if parents would have a legal basis to obtain compensatory education, a caveat which entitles students to retroactive services if they were not adequately provided as per an IEP.
“My general takeaway is that I feel there has been no nod of acknowledgement that this is not accessible,” said an exasperated Olsheski.
When it came to questions about whether DOE would be involved with addressing regression stemming from the transition to remote learning, the department said it has been monitoring student’s progress throughout the pandemic “in order to prioritize targeted support and intervention for students based on their unique needs.”
“Our students with disabilities remain a top priority during remote learning,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement, assuring that each family’s individualized needs are being met through the outreach efforts of parent coordinators, Transition Team leaders and the Superintendent’s Office, particularly in District 75.
In addition to workshops to be provided by the Offices of Autism and Inclusion, DOE will host the Beyond Access Forum, a virtual event for families, teachers, clinicians and administrators to come together, share experiences and learn from one another.
Officials say the department is also in the process of developing informational videos for families, on topics like related services and the IEP process.
DOE did not respond to inquiries regarding the development of a contingency plan for remote learning, should the city find itself in a position of quarantine in the future.