Extra considerations as students with special needs return to school

CHELMSFORD, Mass. — As school districts and parents continue to plan for the start of school, the state has advised school districts to prioritize special needs students for in-person learning. 

Special needs families and advocates tell Boston 25 News they’re not just concerned about falling behind, but also about missing out on a key developmental window when early intervention is crucial.

That is the case for 5-year-old Matthew Shupe, who is about to start kindergarten in Chelmsford this fall.

Matthew has autism, but since the switch to remote learning in March, his mom, Lindsay, has become his primary teacher.

The Chelmsford school district has voted for a hybrid model for when students return in September.

They're still ironing out if Matthew will receive in-person services, in the fall.

Matthew's mom says there are some things she can't teach at home or at that can't be taught remotely.

Matthew is an only child and his mom says without Matthew being able to watch and learn from "neurotypical" kids at school, her son has regressed -- meaning he has lost skills he once had.

"I think he's lost some ground socially. That will take time to build back up through his therapists," explains Lindsay Shupe.

Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education or DESE issued special education guidance to school districts. They wrote in the 7/10/2020 memo: "Even if the rest of the school has entered into a hybrid or remote mode of instruction, districts must make every effort to maintain in-person instruction for students with disabilities, particularly those with complex and significant needs and pre-school aged students."

You can find the full memo here. Parents and guardians questions can be directed to COVID19K12ParentInfo@mass.gov.

Special education departments across the state continue to straddle a difficult line between students' educational, social and emotional needs and safety.

Quincy Public Schools’ Special Ed Director Erin Perkins says she’s trying to accomplish both.

“I think that Special Education for our kids in the fall. I’m hopeful that it’s going to look like what it looked like pre-COVID-19. It’s definitely a challenge but we’re going to work together. We’re going to work with our families. We’ve met with you know almost all families in our district that this point,” said Perkins.

Not everything will be the same. Perkins says staff will wear clear masks so students can still read lips and facial expressions.

“We used painter’s tape to know where to keep the desks in order to maintain social distancing,” said Perkins. But there will be enough space to bring every Special Ed child in Quincy back, if parents opt in, Perkins says.

"There are some children who absolutely need to be in-person with that structure with that routine," said Perkins.

When what a school district is offering is not meeting students’ needs, “Mass Advocates for Children” is a free resource where parents can turn.

Hotline coordinator Leslie Lockhart says she has received dozens of calls from families who are frustrated that remote learning isn't working for their child.

Her advice is to document lack of progress, and use that log to ask the district for “compensatory services.” Mass Advocates for Children also offers a log template.

“That log  will show this is what the school offered but  my  child didn’t access it,” explained Lockhart. “Or maybe the school offered almost nothing. Some schools are offering next to nothing. So all of that documenting will give you the best opportunity to get compensatory services, which are services from the school to compensate or make-up for services that they didn’t provide.”

The state department of education has newly-released guidelines on compensatory services.

Dr. Rafael Castro is the Executive Director of the Integrated Center for Child Development in Canton and Newton which provides assessments and recommendations for some of the state's highest need students.

Many of the families he works with are concerned their children are not just falling behind academically, but are missing key windows to work on developmental milestones.

They may also be losing skills necessary to put them on the path toward an independent life.

Dr. Castro says remote learning is simply not effective for most of these students.

We asked him a question many special needs parents may be wondering while watching their children fall even further behind because of the pandemic: is there a point where it's not possible to catch up anymore?

"Some of our children's challenges are lifelong and so that has to be factored in, into our thinking, but the reality is we're seeing a deterioration emotionally which in turn is stressing our families to a very very high degree. Parents are suffering," said Dr. Castro.

Another part of the conversation is schools will have to be creative about ways to teach special needs students in-person, this year.

Special needs kids often require more tactile teaching --- hand over hand demonstrations and deep squeezes and hugs and back rubs as reinforcement and for regulation.

But if that's not allowed to try to prevent sickness, that could lead to more behavioral problems or could be a problem for fulfilling services students may be entitled to like occupational and physical therapy.

Heather Hegedus is a special needs parent. You can direct story ideas -- including ones about your special needs experiences -- to Heather at heather.hegedus@boston25.com.

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