2021 | Schools

Parents of special education students fear academic, social losses

Nearly one year since schools were open, groups push for ‘emergency solution’

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When Montgomery County schools first closed in March, it was confusing for Dana Chan’s 10-year-old son, Ryder, who has Down syndrome.

The disrupted routine that’s often hard for children with developmental disabilities to process, lack of regular therapy services and abrupt stop to socialization with classmates and friends were difficult to navigate.

Ryder, a student at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, refused to participate in online classes or virtual therapy sessions. He was frustrated.

It was supposed to be a temporary two-week closure to slow the spread of COVID-19, a deadly new disease, which made the disruption manageable.

But two weeks turned into four, then 12. Then the school year ended. When fall came, buildings still didn’t reopen.

Now, 11 months later, the situation is nearly unbearable.

“His education has gotten so far behind now, it’s like game over,” Chan said of her son. “He was already behind, but now he’s so far behind, he’s never going to be anywhere close to being with the rest of the group again. It’s just too late.”

Chan’s story is one of hundreds in Montgomery County from families distraught over the prolonged school closures and what they believe will be a lifelong impact on their students with special needs.

In recent weeks, as pressure to reopen from state leaders mounts, the push from families of special education students has intensified.

A handful of Facebook groups have sprouted up focused on advocating for swift school reopenings, often citing the closures’ effects on students in special education programs.

Online message boards are full of stories about hardships and social and academic regression. School board members have said they have gotten hundreds of emails from frustrated families.

Over the past 11 months, Montgomery County Public Schools officials have routinely acknowledged the concerns and frustrations, but have made no moves to provide in-person classes or services. They cite data showing coronavirus case rates above 15 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate around 5% — both benchmarks the district has set for reopening buildings. Data higher than those markers, leaders say, mean it is not safe for students and staff members to gather, at the risk contracting or spreading the virus.

The Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) Virtual Learning Committee has started an online petition calling on MCPS to develop an “emergency solution” to provide adequate services to students in special education programs.

The petitioners don’t offer a definitive solution, but lay out several ideas the district could consider, including using outdoor areas for in-person classes, making home visits or paying or reimbursing families for services they have to solicit from private providers.

Last week, the MCCPTA hosted a town hall meeting in which it shared families’ video testimony with MCPS, school board members and County Council members.

When school buildings reopen — now scheduled for March 15 — students in intensive special education programs are expected to be brought back first, and face-to-face classes are planned multiple days per week. The school board will meet on Tuesday to discuss its reopening plan, and set a date for “very small groups” of students in special education programs to return to buildings earlier, likely by the end of February.

While many families were happy to hear of the imminent progress, but they say it is too little, too late.

Children have been away from their schools nearly a year, often without access to in-person classes and therapy. For many, virtual therapies aren’t working, parents said.

And for those who don’t suffer significant learning loss from their time out of school, they will still have likely not made progress since buildings closed, said Kim Glassman, a special education attorney and parent of two special education students.

The worries are compounded for low-income and minority students, who are less likely to have access to private services.

“To go a full year without in-person physical therapy, that’s so much not only regression, but so much progress you would have made — those opportunities haven’t existed for a year now,” Glassman said. “How is it ever going to be humanly possible to get these kids to a place they would have been had they gotten meaningful access to services over the past year?”

Looking for help outside of MCPS

A group of parents who recently spoke to Bethesda Beat were adamant that their children’s teachers are doing the best they can, but “there’s only so much they can do in a format that isn’t working.”

Parents, especially of children with more severe developmental disabilities, are tasked with being teachers, paraeducators, therapists, technical support staff and parents, Chan said.

Her son wasn’t getting physical, occupational or speech therapy from the district like he used to, so she sought private services. But as the bills piled up — “it was like the equivalent of buying a small car” — they had to stop going.

“School was already very difficult for them with a lot of support needed, and when you took away school from them, there’s no social interaction. It’s like they have nothing,” Chan said.

Jacqueline Renfrow spent $3,500 to get one of her children privately screened for special education services because MCPS stopped providing the service, which must be done in person. (MCPS in December began doing the screenings again, after a nine-month hiatus.)

Renfrow has two other children with special needs. She said her fourth-grade son, who is dyslexic, attends private school, and her second-grade daughter, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, remains enrolled at Fallsmead Elementary School and is doing OK.

But her son, Joey, who is autistic, struggled more.

Joey, also in second grade, used to receive about two hours of special education services each day at Fallsmead, in Rockville. When classes pivoted online, that time was cut to a daily 20-minute Zoom call, shared with other students, Renfrow said.

Joey would scream and cry when it was time to log on to classes.

After eight months of trying, the family caved. Joey is now a student at the Barnesville School of Arts and Sciences. It’s still far from perfect — he doesn’t receive specific special education services there, either, and he needs a tutor to help keep up — but he is rejuvenated by the days he gets to be in school with his friends.

He’s learning, his mother said.

“Until you’ve been at home with a kid who’s upset and throwing a computer, who’s not learning and on top of that is miserable, you might not have the same sense of urgency or really understand,” said Renfrow, who shared her family’s experiences last month in a Bethesda Beat opinion piece. “But if we get any kind of in-person time, I’m hopeful he’ll go back (to MCPS), but without that, it just can’t happen.”

MCPS Associate Superintendent of Special Education Kevin Lowndes said it is unusual for students to have had their services reduced so dramatically during virtual classes. More often, the execution of the services just looks different, he said.

For example, before, some students might have had a paraprofessional with them in class, and could talk through lessons with them as they happened. Now, that isn’t possible without pulling children from the main Zoom room into a “breakout room,” which means they can’t see or hear the main teacher or their classmates.

In recent school board meetings, Lowndes said his department is well aware there will be increased needs when students return to the classroom, and that the district will need to provide more money to meet those needs.

In November, as parents’ complaints began mounted about their children’s access to special education services, MCPS showed a video during a school board meeting outlining a range of assistive technology the district has provided to students to assist with their classes.

MCPS has spent about $1.5 million to provide technology and other equipment — like specialized chairs and desks — to families of special education students, Lowndes said in a recent interview.

Preparing to return to schools

In December, MCPS released data showing a striking increase in the percentage of students who failed math and English courses in the first quarter of the academic year. Among the groups most affected: special education students. This year, for example, 32% of special education students in freshman English received a failing grade in the first quarter. That’s compared to 6% of those students failing eighth-grade English last year.

Still, even with the loud push for in-person classes, about half of MCPS’ special education students have chosen to continue in the fully virtual model for the rest of the academic year.

Special education students in schools with higher concentrations of poverty were most likely to choose to remain fully virtual, according to district data. Many of the students’ families didn’t answer the survey and were opted into the virtual model by default.

Some parents said in interviews that students who do not have critical needs, but still receive special education services, feel their child has gotten into a routine. Parents say it would be difficult to change the routines, then have changes undone a few months later, if positive COVID-19 cases force school buildings to close again, causing more disruption.

For others, medical conditions make their children more likely to get seriously sick if they contract COVID-19.

Lowndes said there aren’t any trends showing that students with specific types of disabilities were more likely to choose to remain in a fully virtual model, though.

For those who don’t return to buildings for classes this academic year, students can go to schools to receive compensatory services like occupational and physical therapy, Lowndes said.

When schools reopen, MCPS is required by state law to have a meeting with the family of each of the thousands of student with an individualized education plan (IEP).

“In those meetings, we’ll discuss with the parents the goals and the objectives that were on the IEP and look at whether they made any progress in that, and if they haven’t made any progress, then we need to discuss how we’re going to help and support the student to get caught up,” Lowndes said.

The district is preparing new professional development training for educators to help students transition back into the school setting, especially those who might struggle socially or with the new routine, Lowndes said.

‘We haven’t stopped trying’

Some families have accused the district of using a “wait and see approach” for helping special education students. Instead of being proactive, they say, the district is waiting for schools to reopen, assess the “damage that has been done” and respond.

Lowndes disagreed.

He said MCPS staff members have adapted and responded to families’ concerns throughout the pandemic.

“When we find out, either through a principal or a teacher or a family, that a student is really struggling during this time period, we will reach out to the family to discuss what else we can put into place to help and support them,” Lowndes said. “If it requires more technology or materials or training, we do that, and we’re constantly trying to support our families during this distance learning. We haven’t stopped trying to help and support families or improve what we’re doing at any time.”

Still, Lowndes said he empathizes with the community.

“It’s difficult and a lot of parents have to be really hands-on with their children in a way they weren’t before, and I can understand that it would be extremely difficult and hard as a parent,” Lowndes said. “I really do understand why they are frustrated. They just want what’s best for their kids. We all do.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com