Sara Harold describes her son, Finn, as a vibrant 3-year-old.
"He loves running, jumping, exploring how things work and the intricacies," said Harold, as she watched him play with a set of magnetic blocks. "While he has very few words, he can make his presence known."
Finn's mom does most of the talking for him right now because he has a speech delay. It’s something Harold noticed when Finn was about 2 years old.
Harold signed Finn up for a speech therapist who went to his daycare. But that was pre-pandemic. When his therapy went online, Finn’s progress pretty much stopped.
"As you can imagine a 20- to 21-month-old will not sit in front of a Zoom for long," Harold pointed out with a rueful laugh.
Without therapy, Finn regressed. As soon as schools and businesses began reopening, Harold says she re-started her search for services. But she kept hitting road blocks. She’d call up an organization and set up an assessment.
"I thought everything was going swimmingly, and then at the end of the session I’m like, 'Ok great, when can we start?' " she remembered thinking. "And then I’m told, 'We don’t have enough staff.' "
Another facility told her it had an 18-month waiting list because it was also short staffed.
Eventually, Finn was diagnosed with autism, and his symptoms qualified him for services at Boston Public Schools. But Harold soon realized BPS had staffing issues too.
'Just trying to get by'
Finn’s individualized education program, or IEP, calls for 20 hours of special skill building each week. But a classroom paraprofessional confided in Harold that most of the time, it wasn't happening.
"She looked at me, and she was like, 'We’re just trying to get by,' " recalled Harold.
Leaders at BPS say labor shortages are putting the district in a difficult spot. Ethan d'Ablemont Burnes, BPS’s assistant superintendent in the office of special education, says the challenge is two-fold: There aren’t enough teachers, and students are coming back needing intense services.
"Kids aren't coming back healthy," said d'Ablemont Burnes. "It is a challenging topic because we have an obligation to meet every single minute of an IEP, and to be perfectly frank, we’re not able to do that."
"The higher your needs are right now the harder it is to get placed."Elizabeth Becker, MAAPS
According to BPS, there are currently 18 vacancies for aides who work one-on-one with students, 13 vacancies for paraprofessionals who help cover when special education staff is absent, and 25 open positions for educators who specialize in applied behavioral analysis, a common special education service.
While BPS has attracted a lot of new staff that used to work at nearby special education private schools, d'Ablemont Burnes says that the district is still coming up short. He says despite all the work his staff is doing to recruit and fill positions, there are often no applicants.
One reason for this is that during the pandemic, many people started re-thinking the work they do. Zachary Houston, BPS’s assistant director for applied behavioral analysis, explains special education can be a tough sell.
"I think it’s the most rewarding work anybody can do, and it’s some of the most important work," said Houston. "But if that’s not your lens, and you’re reflecting on, 'Do I really want to go to work and have the possibility of being hit today? Or someone biting me?' ... Some people are, in that reflection, just deciding it’s just not worth it."
Not just a public school problem
When students can’t get services in a local public school, or the district decides it isn't equipped to serve a student, they can apply to one of the state’s 80 special education private schools. But these schools face an even more severe labor shortage. According to the Massachusetts Association of Approved Private Schools (MAAPS), the sector lost about a quarter of its workforce since the pandemic began. Most of the open positions are for teachers.
"The higher your needs are right now the harder it is to get placed," said the group's director, Elizabeth Becker. "And, to me, that’s the tragedy of this situation."
The shortages also mean staff can be stretched thin, as some employees take on extra duties to make up for vacant positions.
"Really, the way we are getting through right now is that we have a number of clinicians and administrators who are spending time in the classroom during the workweek," said Jessica Sassi, the executive director of the New England Center for Children in Southborough, which serves students with autism spectrum disorders.
Alexis Shostek, a day coordinator at the school, often helps the residential students get ready for class in the morning. But doing that means she's had to scale back on other responsibilities, like observing new teachers. The tasks she doesn't get done weigh on her.
"The idea of leaving all of that unfinished has been really unsettling," she said.
"We're really lucky that we have such a committed group of people doing this work for us," added Sassi. "But it's tiring. People have been working two jobs for several months now, and that's not sustainable."
To maintain quality and safety with less staff, Sassi says she's had to freeze admissions at the New England Center for Children. Many other special education private schools in the state have done the same thing. And those that haven't are getting close because high demand has caused referrals to skyrocket.
"We average about 15 referrals a month, and this month alone we've seen 37," explained Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, executive director at the Ivy Street School in Brookline. "So it's not just that we're seeing a staffing crisis, we're seeing a real need from students."
A crisis exacerbated by the pandemic
Staffing shortages are not new in special education, but the pandemic has made the problem much worse. Schools describe kids returning with more profound needs or having lost skills, so more positions have opened up in public schools, which offer higher pay, shorter hours and, sometimes, less complex cases.
"We have the highest acuity students because that’s the nature of the work we do," explained Becker, of MAAPS. "We cannot be remote. We have a longer school day and a longer school year … So public schools are offering a very competitive package."
Private special education schools are in a tough spot when it comes to wages. They can’t just give everyone a raise because even though they’re private, budget increases require state approval.
The state recently launched a $79 million grant program to help private schools offer signing and retention bonuses, but long term solutions are still in the works. Russell Johnston, a Massachusetts deputy commissioner of education, says they can’t come soon enough.
"The staffing challenge doesn’t take away a student's right to a free and appropriate public education," said Johnston, adding that he's focused on finding solutions. "So if that means coming up with other ways of finding the staff that we haven’t thought of before or providing compensatory services where necessary."
"It's probably the most gut wrenching, sucker punch feeling you can have. All you want to do is get help, but you don't know where to go."Sara Harold, mother
Even though students have a right to special education services under federal law, Jeff Sankey, a special education attorney, says some kids aren’t getting the care they were promised.
"I do have cases where parents are calling me saying that my child was supposed to be getting one-on-one support, but I’m finding that there’s now one staff member supervising three children," explained Sankey.
He said hearing those stories raises questions about safety. "A lot of these kids have a tendency to bolt or a tendency to try to access things on the internet that they shouldn't be accessing. They have difficulties with interpersonal relationships that need to be carefully monitored."
For parent Sara Harold, relief came when a day program was finally able to take her son, Finn, and she says he is responding well to the program, offered by Springtide Child Development. She's grateful because the constant fight for services was exhausting.
"It's probably the most gut wrenching, sucker punch feeling you can have," she said. "All you want to do is get help, but you don't know where to go."
This report has been updated to reflect the name of the company that runs the day program.
This article was originally published on December 13, 2021.
This segment aired on December 13, 2021.