With Schools in Crisis Mode, Kids With Disabilities Are Being Left Behind | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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With Schools in Crisis Mode, Kids With Disabilities Are Being Left Behind

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Maurice and Lauren - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Maurice and Lauren

Nine-year-old Maurice loves swimming, horseback riding and playing Connect 4. He's fiercely independent but affectionate and snuggly, too. He "lights up like the sun" when he figures out a new skill, according to his mother, Lauren.

Maurice also has multiple disabilities — including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and blindness — that necessitate frequent doctor's appointments, occupational and physical therapy, and speech services. Until recently, Maurice received many of those services while attending public school.

But this school year, the fourth grader has spent most of his time at home with Lauren, a single mom who moved to Springfield from Burlington last spring to be closer to Maurice's team of doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center. She asked that her last name not be included in this story.

The Springfield School District removed Maurice from summer school last July for pulling a paraeducator's hair, then told Lauren that it lacked the staff and resources to meet the boy's educational needs. Administrators suggested that Maurice might do better attending a specialized, independent school in the fall. But none was taking new students or had the programming to meet his needs.

That left Maurice with nowhere to go. For months — despite multiple meetings and a letter from one of his doctors urging the district to allow him to attend school in person — he stayed at home with his mom. At the end of November, the district started providing just one hour of occupational therapy and speech instruction per week at Union Street Elementary School. Lauren must stay by her son's side during the sessions to assist him.

Maurice's educational experience this year has been "absolutely terrible," she said. And though she isn't convinced that the pandemic is fully to blame, it's clearly a contributing factor.

Before March 2020, parents of children with disabilities were used to advocating fiercely to make sure their kids were getting the school services they are legally entitled to. But this second pandemic year, with schools facing COVID-19-related instability and workforce shortages, students with special needs, and their parents, have limited recourse.

"We have a retention issue; we have a lack of a pipeline of educators coming in, [and] there are fewer people who want to work in paraeducator roles than ever before," said Erin Maguire, codirector of student support services for the Essex Westford School District.

Maurice - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Maurice

It's gotten so bad that some large school districts have more than 20 unfilled special-education positions, according to Darren McIntyre, executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators.

The result? Districts have to "triage" staff members to cover essential services, such as students who need one-on-one support, McIntyre said during a January 13 hearing before the state House Education Committee. In some cases, schools aren't able to provide students with the services they need. The result is "an enormous amount of strain on the educational system," he testified.

Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, kids with special needs are guaranteed a "free, appropriate public education" until age 22. An Individualized Education Program, or IEP, details what services and support the school must provide for a child. Nearly 14,000 K-12 students in the state have one of these legally binding documents, according to Vermont Agency of Education data.

If parents believe that their child's IEP isn't being followed, they can take it up with the school or, in the absence of a satisfactory outcome, pursue legal action.

Federal law requires schools to provide "compensatory services" to special-ed students to make up for lost learning. But this year, with schools still operating in crisis-management mode, that has proven challenging. Maguire, for example, tried to create an afterschool program in her district for students with IEPs but wasn't able to find the staff to run it.

In Richford, Rebecca Waggoner's family is contending with the effects of frequent staff turnover. Her 8-year-old son, Syd, has a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that requires occupational and physical therapy, speech services, and the support of a paraprofessional. Before her family moved to the Franklin County town last summer, Waggoner met with staff at the local elementary school to explain Syd's disabilities and staffing needs, with the goal of ensuring a smooth transition.

But when he started school in the fall, the district had not yet hired a one-on-one paraeducator. Now, five months into the school year, Syd has cycled through three.

Waggoner said her son "thrives on consistency" and is suffering from the disruption of changing paraeducators. He's been yelling, defiant and resistant to assignments — negative behavior that Waggoner said she hasn't seen in years.

"We try really hard to mitigate the consequences of having to shift staff around," Richford Elementary School principal Kelli Dean said. "But, obviously, that is going to have an impact when all kids really thrive on that consistency."

Pandemic-driven school closures, sickness and months of remote learning have disrupted education for all students. But it has been especially damaging for kids with disabilities, said Nancy Kisonak, who works with families to ensure that their children are receiving appropriate special-ed programming.

"I would say parents and their students are demoralized. There's a level of trauma associated with watching your child fall apart," Kisonak said. "There's a difference between typical regression and falling apart, and I'm working with a lot of parents whose kids have, unfortunately, fallen apart."

At the Vermont Family Network, a nonprofit that supports families and children with disabilities and special health needs, there's been a substantial increase in calls to the organization's help line this school year. Some students with disabilities are being sent home early from school when there is a shortage of service providers, according to Karen Price, the nonprofit's codirector of family support. Other times, families run into transportation issues getting their kids to and from school. Some students are assigned support staff who don't have the proper qualifications to meet their needs.

It's not just public schools that are facing these challenges. Independent schools for students with disabilities — including residential programs — are also contending with staffing shortages.

Price is careful not to blame schools for factors outside their control. She advises parents to work collaboratively with school personnel when possible and keep thorough documentation of their child's education — including what services they are missing and where they've lost ground. If parents keep good records, the hope is that students can receive those missed services when school staffing stabilizes, Price said.

Some families, though, are losing patience. Deb Kingsbury, who lives in Rutland County, has a 16-year-old son with autism who attended high school full time for the bulk of the last school year. This year, he is only in school for two hours a day. She's been told by the school that Rutland Mental Health Services, which contracts with the district to provide in-person services for her son, lacks the staff to provide more in-school time for him.

In September, the Agency of Education approved placing the teen in a residential program, but all the providers in the region were either full or not equipped to deal with his behavioral needs. In November, the family also lost access to out-of-school behavior support services because of cuts to the program for older students.

Kingsbury said her son has regressed since the start of the pandemic, and his limited school schedule has taken a toll on her and her husband. She recently had to pause her online nursing program because she didn't have the time to devote to it.

"Two hours isn't really enough for us to simply get a break," Kingsbury said. After dropping off her son at school, she has just a bit of time to decompress — drink her coffee, check email, walk the dogs — "and then it's time to turn around and pick him up again."

"He is bored, under-stimulated and misses his friends," Kingsbury said. "He needs full-day, intellectually stimulating programming with people other than Mom and Dad."

Parents looking for advice often contact Vermont Legal Aid and its Disability Law Project, according to director Rachel Seelig. Since August 2021, the project has opened 80 education cases. That's about a 20 percent increase from before the pandemic, while funding for the work has stayed flat. When staffing is a barrier, as it has been this year, "these cases are becoming more difficult to resolve," Seelig said.

Still, schools can't use the lack of staff as an excuse to deny students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education, Seelig said. Families have several different avenues for dispute resolution when their children's IEPs aren't being followed, including mediation with the school district or filing a complaint with the Agency of Education. But her agency, with just one part-time and two full-time lawyers, can handle only a limited number of cases.

One of Vermont Legal Aid's clients is Jamie Josselyn of Ludlow and her 19-year-old daughter, Riley.

For the past six years, Riley — who has a seizure disorder, cerebral palsy, gross and fine motor and vision impairment, and hearing loss — has attended the Hartford Autism Regional Program in White River Junction. The teen, who uses a wheelchair, missed the first six weeks of this school year because she was recovering from spinal fusion surgery. In mid-November, administrators told Josselyn they could not meet Riley's complex needs and she could no longer attend HARP.

Since then, Riley has been homebound as Josselyn tries to find a suitable program for her. The young woman is not getting any of the vocational or life-skills training that are specified in her IEP.

Josselyn said she's considering filing paperwork with the Agency of Education so that someone can hear their case, but her lawyer said it could take up to eight months to get anything resolved. Meanwhile, Riley has regressed emotionally.

"It's almost like she's kind of given up," Josselyn said. "We're isolated so much ... I think she's a little depressed ... She's a very social girl, and she's definitely missed out on all that socialization."

Special-education director Maguire, who is also president of the national Council of Administrators of Special Education, thinks that a solution to the special-ed situation will require systemic change.

"The teaching profession creates our future, and we've done such a disservice as a society to the value of teaching that I think we're watching the outcome now in the context of a global pandemic," Maguire said. "In special education, especially, I think this is an issue."

For now, though, families are shouldering the burden.

In Springfield, Lauren said that fighting so hard for Maurice has been exhausting.

"I never thought I'd be in a position where, after only two weeks, they would say that they don't know what to do with him," she said.

There's "a very deep level of heartbreak" among the special-needs community right now, added Waggoner, the Richford mom: "All of us are just devastated."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Learning, Interrupted"