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Special education families fear that children will not receive enough help during a prolonged school delay due to the coronavirus pandemic

Hartford Courant - 3/19/2020

Special education advocates and families are calling on the state’s top education officials to issue plans on how districts will provide crucial assistance to children with disabilities as lengthy school closures set in to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Darlene Borr\u00e9 of West Hartford said her son, an 18-year-old with autism attending an outplacement school, is now home, breaking a routine that typically calms him.

She has heard of plans for online learning and video lessons, but those do not help her son. She needs assistance from trained educators at a crucial time for her son, who has just two years left of support from the town’s school district.

“Without help it’s impossible to teach him, it’s impossible for him to learn. We are just getting through the day. We need a better plan. We need the professionals,” Borr\u00e9 said. Little, if any, information has been provided about how Borr\u00e9 will get her son the assistance he needs while schools are closed.

In letters to Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel A. Cardona, families and advocates have raised concerns about the lack of clear guidance for families and caretakers of children with disabilities during the coronavirus crisis.

“We write to implore you to issue binding instructions to school districts on providing special education and related services during any period of closure,” the Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut wrote in the letter to Cardona that was endorsed by nearly a dozen other organizations and more than 75 individuals. “We understand, of course, that local, state and federal agencies are dealing with an unprecedented crisis and that we are all figuring out how to deal with the pandemic in real time.”

Families of students with special needs are confused and left with questions that are not being answered, the letter said. Some advocates have heard from families that are already struggling and fear the situation will become untenable if plans are not put in place.

Elizabeth Howard of Enfield said she reached out to her 11-year-old daughter Isabel’s teacher on March 3. As a nursing coordinator for a facility in Massachusetts, Howard said she was aware of coronavirus and wanted to have a plan for her daughter, who has autism and requires the dedicated help of two professionals each day in school.

She said she was provided little guidance at the time, but as it became clear schools may have to close for extended periods, Howard was given an educational packet last Thursday with work for Isabel.

Inside were activities like tracing and cutting along lines with scissors, Howard said.

“It was five pages of work. It does not pertain to my daughter at all,” Howard said. “She doesn’t use scissors.”

Howard has reached out to her daughter’s teacher and to the district but has been given no answers for what she should do to address her daughter’s educational needs.

“I understand it’s a pandemic; I am a nurse,” Howard said. "I understand the gravity of everything but at the same time there was no plan put in place.”

Howard said she knows the goals outlined for her daughter in her individualized education program, developed by the school, but she does not know how to reach those goals.

“I am very concerned about my daughter regressing. Obviously this is going to be longer than two weeks. I have no idea what we are going to do,” Howard said.

The state initially had recommended districts look at extended closures as if they were days missed during severe weather, by adding onto the end of the school. But reflecting shifting federal guidelines, top education officials fear school closures could move well beyond two weeks.

The state has been reviewing plans for distance learning, but Cardona urged superintendents Monday not to delay in creating one for their district if they have not yet.

“Given these new updates, do not wait for a perfect plan to be developed to start your distance learning,” Cardona wrote to Connecticut school superintendents.

Previous communications in the past week made little reference to how districts may address special education needs during any prolonged closures.

The letter from Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut said state and federal guidance has been helpful but has yet to answer important questions about

“A school closure can inflict a level of damage to these students which can never be effectively remediated. Indeed, the impact of closures on students with disabilities will be far more profound than the impact on other students,” the letter read.

Responding to the letter, Cardona said the department is "focusing all of our energy and efforts on supporting students and their families during this national emergency, including students with disabilities.”

“Keeping students’ health and safety at the forefront, CSDE is assisting school districts with their responsibility to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same educational opportunities as the general student population during school closures.”

The state education department was also developing some further guidance for districts on how to best meet the needs of students receiving special education.

The Arc Connecticut, an advocacy organization for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also sent a letter to Cardona. Though the organization said it does not typically do school-based advocacy, they have heard from a number of concerned parents whose children have severe behavioral issues and rely on support through schools.

“It is not humanly possible for families to care for children and young adults with severe behaviors, some of whom are full grown but still in school, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, indefinitely,” wrote Shannon Jacovino, Arc Connecticut’s director of advocacy and public policy. “This need will only grow and become more urgent as the time they need to remain at home extends past two weeks, as we all expect that it will.”

Arc Connecticut acknowledged there are thousands of teaching professionals trained in working with students with severe behavioral issues that are home right now, and asked Cardona to instruct districts to make those names available to families in need of support.

Both Arc Connecticut and Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut have offered to work with Cardona and the state education department in their efforts to address these issues.

Nicholas Rondinone can be reached at nrondinone@courant.com.

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(c)2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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