Coronavirus: Tougher return to school for special needs students

Coronavirus: Tougher return to school for special needs students
Students with special needs could face a tougher return to school. (Boston25News.com/Boston25News.com)

Cole Minicucci is 9 and accustomed to going to school for 216 days a year, but the pandemic reduced his education to 30-minute lessons on Zoom, said his mother, Hillary.

“We’ve started to see regressions,” Hillary Minicucci said.

Cole attends Nashoba Learning Group, a private school in Bedford. His mother says his school district, Methuen, pays for him to go there because of his specific needs.

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“The initial guidance sent yesterday applies to private special education day schools,” said Jacquelin Reis, media relations coordinator in the Office of the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Residential schools that remained open through spring are in a separate category, according to DESE.

“The way they’re proposed right now, I don’t know how any IEP (individualized education plans), which is a legal binding document, can effectively be executed,” said Minicucci.

In the new Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance made public on Thursday by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, delivery of IEP services is explained as follows:

"Students must receive all services pursuant to their IEPs through in-person or remote instruction, with an emphasis on providing in-person instruction to this particularly vulnerable population of students whenever possible. In particular, DESE recommends that schools and districts make additional provisions to provide as much in-person instruction as possible for students with moderate to severe disabilities (e.g., maintaining full-time in-person instruction for students in substantially separate classrooms even if the rest of the school is in a hybrid model of instruction)."

While most public school students can expect desks to be socially distanced by at least three feet, and to bring masks to class each day, those with special needs may find the routine especially challenging explained Kathleen Smith, interim superintendent for Salem Public Schools.

“The routines have changed,” Smith said.

“I do think it’s important to get kids back to school especially our special needs youngsters.”

Smith says she has spent months discussing potential changes alongside working groups analyzing every facet of instruction and facilities, prior to the state’s new guidance.

She believes the new routine for special needs students with communication difficulties may be the toughest for school districts to address.

“These kids need touch, they need hands-on, they need physical prompting, they need vocal prompting,” said Minicucci.

Under the new guidance, those who work in close proximity with students with disabilities are required to take additional safety measures when social distancing is not possible.

“These precautions must include eye protection (e.g., face shield or goggles) and a mask/face covering. Precautions may also include gloves and disposable gowns or washable outer layer of clothing depending on the duration of contact and especially if the individual may come into close contact with bodily fluids,” the report stated.

School districts were told by the state to develop in-person, remote learning, and hybrid models for the return to school. Students with “high-needs” should be prioritized, according to Reopening Guidance.

“That could be a really relevant and helpful place to start our planning,” said Tracy Novick, a school committee member with Worcester Public Schools and education blogger.

Corinne Popp, an English and special needs teacher at Newton Public Schools says the new protocols are important.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of extra work for teachers cleaning surfaces and masks and things like that,” said Popp.

“I think so much is going to change between now and September that it’s almost premature to think about how we’re going to space our desks.”

As school districts craft their three scenarios for reopening, state education officials announced that another set of guidance will be coming in July that will cover special needs and transportation as well as athletics.