25 Investigates: Mom says her child with autism left out of return to full-time, in-person school

WOBURN, Mass. — Across Massachusetts, children and parents are gearing up for a return to full-time, in-person learning starting Monday, April 5. The state is mandating this with few exceptions.

But 25 Investigates has learned some students are still being left out of the back to school in-person plan. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh spoke with a Woburn mom who says her Pre-K student with autism needs a full day in the classroom now more than ever. But she’s not getting it.

“I don’t know why we have to fight this hard to get our kids what they need. It’s unacceptable. It’s just, I’m tired,” said mom Sherry Marshall.

Marshall says it’s been a long road and a lot of work to get her daughter to where she’s at now. Four-year-old Penelope was diagnosed with autism at age 2. Marshall says her time in pre-school in Woburn public schools made an enormous difference.

“So, she would go from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days a week,” she said. “Her behavior is especially calmed down. And she started talking.”

Marshall says a year of remote and hybrid learning slowly eroded Penelope’s progress and the lack of structure was a big trigger.

“A meltdown is not just her crying. A meltdown is head banging, throwing, kicking, screaming, rolling around, destroying the house hitting people. It can go from 30 minutes to literally all day long,” Marshall said.

Sherry says she accepted what had to happen during the pandemic. But she feels her daughter and all Pre-K special needs students are being left out in Woburn as the state returns to full-time in person learning.

Here’s why. Woburn told parents Pre-K through grade 5 schools fully open on April 5. Typical Pre-K kids in Woburn go a half day, either a morning or afternoon session.

Marshall says Penelope should attend both, according to her IEP, or individualized education plan. But she says the district plans to dismiss her halfway through the afternoon session.

“It’s a difference of what, two hours,” Kavanaugh asked.

“I know it doesn’t seem like a big difference to us. But that’s a big difference to her,” said Marshall. “The schools are open. The teachers are there. The students are there. Why are we sending her home?”

Kavanaugh brought that question to Woburn public schools.

Superintendent Matt Crowley sent the following statement: “The Woburn Public Schools has worked swiftly to comply with DESE’s order to return all K-5 students to full in-person learning effective April 5th. Since the start of this school year, the Early Childhood population was prioritized in accordance with the DESE guidance for maximum in-person learning. Our program runs four, in-person days a week, with the hours of attendance based on individual student needs.”

25 Investigates wanted to know what other school districts are doing for pre-school kids with special needs.

Neighboring Stoneham told us all preschool students, including students with disabilities, have been on their typical schedules for this entire school year.

Next door in Winchester, they told us Pre-K students are already all full-time for four days and will add a fifth day beginning next week.

The state’s largest school district Boston said all Pre-K, including special needs students, will return to full-time in person learning on April 5.

The plans can vary district to district because DESE guidelines say Pre-K grades don’t have to meet the new in-person learning standard, but districts were urged to make it happen soon. DESE says the in-person learning mandate is being done under the Student Learning Time regulations. Pre-K is not part of Student Learning Time regulations, so it wasn’t included in the in-person learning requirement.

“She needs she needs help. You know, she needs the structure, the help, you know, her this guidance of the school, her education,” Marshall said. “It’s hard to watch it go backwards.”

A DESE spokesperson says they could not speak to this specific situation. But they say each child should have their IEP met, regardless of the learning model that a district is in.

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