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Residential Schools — After Months Of Elevated Risk — Get Help From Baker Administration

Thirty-two residential schools that serve students with the most severe disabilities will receive much-needed aid from the state.

This spring, as other schools in Massachusetts closed their doors and moved instruction online, those schools stayed open — exposing students and staff to the virus and incurring millions in unmet costs. And even with this support, the risk isn’t over.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced $16.1 million in aid at the New England Center for Children in Southborough — one such school — on Monday afternoon.

In March and April, the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services sent $139 million in emergency relief to “congregate care” service providers, among them nursing and group homes — but the residential schools in question were not included .

Meanwhile, they were taking on unexpected expenses.

Vinnie Strully, CEO of the New England Center for Children, told reporters Monday that his institution spent $3 million outside of their budget as they began disinfecting their facility, buying “personal protective equipment,” and updating the physical plant to suit the new reality.

“The one residence where just about everyone got sick — about nine kids — there [were], we thought, issues with the ventilation,” Strully said. He and his staff spent more than $35,000 reworking ventilation, and have learned to let in fresh air and keep airstreams separate.

Since opening in 1975, the center has never totally closed down — a function of the population it serves. Of its 121 residential students, most with severe forms of autism, Strully said, “[they] have no alternative… They cannot live safely at home, and some do not have a home.”

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders congratulated Strully and his staff on preserving that streak this spring, calling it a “testament to the belief that all children deserve the best education possible.”

According to a release from the governor’s office, the New England Center for Children is set to receive more than $1.9 million of state aid.

The Judge Rotenberg Center, based in Canton, will receive nearly $1.8 million. In March, the Food and Drug Administration banned the Rotenberg Center from using electric shocks to control dozens of students who suffer from autism and other severe behavioral disorders. Crystal Springs, Inc., another residential program based in Assonet — sued in 2013 for the wrongful death of a student — will receive more than $513,000.

Strully said his and other institutions recognize that “the fight against [COVID-19] is far from over."

His main concern going forward is access to rapid and reliable testing: “If we could test our employees regularly, I’m absolutely certain we could stay wide open, contain the virus — even if we got it in one classroom.”

But that, he added, goes beyond state leadership and to the lack of an adequate federal push to expand testing.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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