Parents of children with special education needs say they are torn between how to best keep their children's education on track while also keeping them safe during the pandemic.
In the case of the Guerrero family of Lawrence, two of their sons receive special education services. Yesenia Guerrero told GBH News her son Javi, 9, has severe autism, and that he is struggling with remote learning in his third-grade class.
“He's been able to sit down from one second to five seconds," Guerrero said. "And the longest he's been [able] to sit is 12 seconds sitting down. So remote hasn't been much success for him.”
Guerrero said she is conflicted. Lawrence is considered a COVID-19 hot spot community, and in-person learning won’t resume until Oct. 19. She said she’d like Javi in school when students return, but she's fearful of the coronavirus risks. His behavioral issues have gotten worse under remote learning, she said.
“He will be crying. Hitting, breaking things, things that he probably didn't do before — or maybe he did, but it was minimum,” she said.
About 170,000 students with disabilities are enrolled in Massachusetts schools. Several parents tell GBH News they're trying to balance keeping their kids healthy with making sure they’re not left behind in their studies. Meanwhile, advocates say schools need to do more to keep parents informed, and to provide the special education services required under the law.
Kevin Murray, executive director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said the remote learning model creates significant hurdles for students with special needs. And if parents don't send their kids to school because of virus fears, he said, the district must still provide the special education services they qualify for.
“So even if a parent decides, 'I can't send my child to school. I know remote education is not good for them. But I just I can't face the dangers of sending my child to school.' The school district still has the obligation to provide them an education,” Murray said.
School reopening decisions have been left largely to local officials, but the state has told districts to prioritize returning students who require special education to the classroom whenever possible. But during a pandemic, it's a challenge.
It means setting up services for speech and language barriers, transportation issues, and social and emotional therapy inside and outside of the classroom.
Under the law, school districts must develop Individualized Education Programs, or IEP’s, for children with disabilities. That document lays out what special services schools must provide — even during a pandemic.
Liza Hirsch, a senior attorney with the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, helps families like the Guerrero’s get the educational services they need. But many parents face a dilemma, she said.
Susana Iazala of Methuen is one of those parents. Her son Brian, a 10th-grader who has severe autism, has remote classes until Oct. 5. Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Iazala said she’s not receiving a lot of support for her son’s remote learning. She said she's worried about putting him at risk with the coronavirus, though she knows he’d function better with in-school learning.
“In my family, remote learning for my child is not working," Iazala said. "The school is not communicating with my child and school is not communicating with me. I have no information from the school.”
Special education advocates said they're encouraging families to assert their rights to school districts. Schools are required to contact parents of students with disabilities to ask parents how best to deliver services that work for their child.
To improve delivery, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently began offering interpretation and translation services to 15 districts.
Hirsch said comprehensive plans for students with complex needs are a work in progress as both parents and schools try to find their way.
“A lot of parents still don't know what all of this means for their child because school districts are still scrambling to get their plans together and to implement it,” she said.
For example, on Monday, the mayor of Leominster expressed concern about remote learning for students with IEP’s and special needs in that community. He declared a public health emergency to try and get children back to school and in-person learning.
In Murray's view, districts have spent too much time devising a hodge-podge of hybrid models and not enough time focused on decreasing inequities.
“Boston happens to be a place where the high-needs students are in the thousands, which creates an exponential increase in the complication of doing this," he said. "But even in a place like Boston or in a place like Lawrence, where the percentage of high needs students is even greater, everyone believes this is possible. It is what must be done.”
Education advocates encourage parents to continue to learn about and assert their rights by bringing their issues directly to school administrators. Meanwhile, DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday he's reviewing hybrid learning models and COVID-19 positivity rates in different communities to see if some schools are safe to reopen to better serve students with special needs.
Susana Iazala said she is worried her son will regress further as weeks stretch into months with remote learning.
“I am very concerned about regression, forgetting what he's already learned,” she said. “And I'm very concerned that when things go back to normal, Brian will not be able to pick up where he left off and he will not want to go back to school and interact through the teachers.”