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A District Changes Course On Special Education, But Leaves Parents And Teachers Frustrated04:45
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Bonnie and Sabrina Budd. (Courtesy the Budd family)
Bonnie and Sabrina Budd. (Courtesy the Budd family)

Bonnie Budd is used to supporting her 16-year-old daughter Sabrina, but the past six months have stretched her and her family to the limit.

"Everyone is just exhausted," she said. "It’s like groundhog day. Wake up, do this routine, yada, yada, yada."

Even though Budd feels like her family possesses the flexibility this moment demands, she knows they can't juggle much longer.

"It’s not sustainable long-term and it’s not fair to Sabrina," she said

Sabrina has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological condition. She typically receives one-and-a-half hours a week of special education services through the Leominster Public Schools. During the school day, she has an aide working one-on-one with her.

Distance learning during the spring presented unique challenges to Sabrina, and students like her.

“She can’t just do an online program," Budd explained. "And she can’t just tap the screen and move along. It really needs to be hands on, explained, slow."

For the last 6 months, the family has been filling those roles — occupational therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist — while trying to connect with services remotely.

“I feel like we’re back in kindergarten with her, trying to get her to do things, which takes a lot of coaching," she said. "Whereas, in school, she’s motivated because everybody else is doing it.”

It's also been hard for Sabrina's teachers to see the changes in their students.

Sabrina Budd exercises on a trampoline in her yard. (Courtesy, the Budd family)
Sabrina Budd exercises on a trampoline in her yard. (Courtesy, the Budd family)

"One of the most frustrating was probably Sabrina," said Sue Lynch, who taught like skills to Sabrina for the past three years. "We had gotten her to the point where she would walk in the hallways and say hello to people. And that was huge for her. And then: boom, it stopped."

When school buildings closed and classes moved remote, the hands-on teacher felt “incompetent” for the first time in her 35-year career.

Lynch fumbled through Google Classroom and tried to coach her students on how to access it.

“Every day I just woke up with this big hole in my heart," she said. "Just so sad I wasn't doing what I needed to do for my kids.”

It's why she wants to go back into the classroom with her students full time, even if others decide it's not right for them.

She's not alone. Seventy percent of staff told the district they want to go back to school either fully or part-time. For parents: Almost half said they wanted their kids back in the classroom full time.

Which is why parents and teachers were livid when the school committee voted 5-4 to go fully remote this year.

On Monday night, the committee backpedaled. Now, schools will phase in a hybrid approach, starting with “micro-hybrids” — very small groups of carefully selected students the district identified as having the highest needs will be able to return to school two days a week.

“These small cohorts are really going to give us an opportunity to better understand where our students are, and to help them really adjust to these COVID protocols,” special education director Kim Woodford told the school committee before the vote.

The district has identified 165 special education students eligible to return out of the district's 6,000 total enrollment.

There’s also, arguably, a legal obligation to bring these students back. Schools are required to follow specific written documents for special education services, known as IEPs.

“There’s not a COVID exception," said Diana Santiago, a senior attorney at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. "There’s not a pandemic exception to students receiving services in accordance with IEPs."

Santiago said some students across the state haven’t received any services since school buildings closed in March. Some IEPs require students to be educated with general population students. She expects lawsuits might be filed in some districts.

“It’s not like at the end of this many are going to just snap out of it and continue where they left off," she said. "In many cases, it will take years to develop skills that they’ve lost through regression because of the interruption in school.”

Some of those skills are as foundational as being able to sit still in a classroom for several minutes.

“Every day I just woke up with this big hole in my heart. Just so sad I wasn't doing what I needed to do for my kids.”

Sue Lynch, life skills teacher

While the goal of slowly bringing back small groups of students for part of the week may be a step in the right direction, parents and teachers said it is still leaving hundreds of students without their legally required services.

“I have students that have hours of services," said first grade special education teacher Jennifer Kifer. "We’re not bringing those children in front of us. Even though most of us have said, ‘I want my students in front of me.’ And that concerns me. [District leaders are] not listening to us and they’re not listening to our readiness to make this happen.”

District leaders told school committee members they were talking to staff and parents. The majority of teachers have been in schools for the past week for trainings and professional development.

Which is why Kifer is skeptical. She's worried about ventilation in some of the buildings, having enough cleaning supplies and protective personal equipment, and having enough staff to serve the special education students.

District officials told the school committee this week that they would have the supplies. Leominster’s Superintendent Paula Deacon declined interview requests, but said in a statement: "Currently we have staff to accommodate all remote and hybrid needs. We will closely monitor should we need additional staff at any level moving forward."

But Kifer's biggest worry is much harder to solve. Because of the scramble during the spring and changing reopening plans, she worries parents don't trust the teachers anymore.

“Sometimes I feel that parents forget that we’re people," she said. "We have the same issues that they do. We’re not trying to avoid working. We just need someone to take the helm and guide us through.”

She hopes the district can communicate better with everyone.

Meanwhile, Bonnie Budd knows that partial days in school won’t be enough for Sabrina. She also worries about other students with special needs who won’t be allowed back in school yet.

“It’s a pandemic. It’s not going to be a typical school year," Budd said. "We need to put an emphasis on anyone who’s at risk. Not just the high needs students, but anyone who's at risk. Who’s a hands-on learner and who is remote learning going to fail?”

Budd and many teachers hope the district is correct that it has enough staff to address the needs of all students, especially the most vulnerable. But many expect they’ll have to keep pushing for it.

This segment aired on September 3, 2020.

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Kathleen McNerney Twitter Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney is senior producer/editor of Edify.

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