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Special needs families face uncertainty of the fall

Special needs families face uncertainty of the fall

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Every day this last spring, Julia Kruse’s 17-year-old brother helped her sign into school.

Due to COVID-19 closures, the family’s living room often served as a classroom. Interactions went from hallway encounters and one-on-one with a teacher between periods at South Albany High School to faces on a screen and assignments piling up in emails. 

Local districts moved to distance learning after Gov. Kate Brown closed schools in March for the remainder of the academic year. The switch had parents scrambling for day care, moving into the role of teacher and trying to play catch-up. 

But now that school is out for the summer, some parents can catch their breath while others, like Julia’s mom, Sarah, are living in limbo. 

Julia, 15, has Down syndrome and is served by Greater Albany Public Schools through an individualized education plan, or IEP. When the district moved to distance learning, it left Sarah working to find ways for Julia to meet her educational needs while working 12-hour shifts as a nurse. Julia was unable to navigate the online platform on her own and, weeks into social distancing, the impact of her lost routine and lost community at South Albany began to show. 

And now, as the Oregon Department of Education leaves reopening decisions up to individual districts, families like the Kruses wait to see if their children in special needs programs will go back to school, their routines and their therapies or if they’ll have to make it work at home, sacrificing important progress and crucial interactions. 

“The worst-case scenario for the fall would be completely distance education,” Kruse said. “With Down's, she really needs human interaction, and learning for her is sort of monkey see, monkey do. She needs the feedback.”

GAPS has not made a decision concerning the fall. Currently, the district administration is studying several options and has said any form of schooling with follow Oregon Health Authority and ODE guidelines. According to Ryan Mattingly, GAPS special programs director, there could be a few different models for families with children who have special needs. 

From a district meeting held with administration and families of special needs children, Mattingly compiled a Q&A of the most pressing issues. Of concerns surrounding in-person classes and children who may not be able to attend — one of the most frequently asked questions — Mattingly said, “We are ready to service our medically fragile children in our schools.” 

Mattingly said the district will work with families based on a child’s individual needs. 

“We expect some families will want to return to full time and some families will not want to attend in person at all,” he said. “We will have a plan to meet all these needs and anything in between.”

At a May School Board meeting, Superintendent Melissa Goff said the district is examining all sorts of models for the fall, including scheduling students so that class sizes are smaller. But the possibility of alternating schedules could be a trigger for some children with special needs. 

Dawn Salveggio has two children on the autism disorder spectrum, Adrianna, 11, and Samuel, 8. 

Her children use a communication device to speak, and she said having their schedule changed over the last four months has had a severe impact on them. 

“It’s hard to explain to them that there’s no school and them understanding that each day is different,” she said. “We also have to figure out child care and explain that to them. If I don’t explain it, or it’s different, then that means there’s a meltdown. On the spectrum, having a routine is what helps them succeed.” 

But Goff warned School Board members that a solid plan concerning fall is a ways off and the situation will remain fluid as summer progresses. So nailing down a routine for families, including child care, transportation and IEP logistics, won’t be a possibility for weeks. 

GAPS is prepared, Mattingly said, for the consequences of interrupted routines for these students. 

“The mental health and social emotional needs of our students are a top priority,” he said. “We will have specific strategies and opportunities for students focused on meeting their social emotional needs.” 

The district is continuing work on the plan for the fall, afforded more time to work out logistics than when schools initially closed in March. 

According to Salveggio, her children receive speech therapy as part of their IEP, but when schools closed, that therapy was no longer offered by the school. One of her concerns for the fall is, if students are still learning remotely, what will IEPs include and what will fall to the wayside due to social distancing? 

”We will develop plans by program with flexibility built in,” Mattingly said in his Q&A. “Then IEP teams will make individual decisions based on the unique circumstances of that particular student and family.” 

Speaking particularly to therapies included in IEPs, Mattingly said, “Speech services will be provided in a variety of ways from traditional, in person to full tele-therapy. We are still developing our plan for the fall but we know for sure that parents will not be expected to provide the service themselves and we will have options for kids to get services in person as well as options for families that prefer everything virtually.”

The Corvallis School District is also bringing families into the fold concerning decisions about the fall for students who have special needs. 

Special education coordinator Sabrina Alexander said the district regularly communicates with parents and will continue to do so throughout the planning process for fall. 

“The concerns I hear about are the concerns I hear all the time,” she said in terms of issues parents of special needs students have raised. “How do students with barriers get full access to educational opportunities? Distance learning has created some additional barriers for students who already have barriers to their education. I think what we hear from parents is consistent with what we hear statewide.” 

Answers surrounding the fall continue to be in short supply, but worry, parents say, is plentiful, especially for those juggling needs for students with IEPs. 

“I’m worried about regression,” Salveggio said. “It’s such a big gap, and parents can’t fill the gap. Everything is new. They’re used to going to the grocery store, and now they can’t. Masks are going to be a problem; I don’t see them wearing it. They’re going to be irritated and fight wearing it.” 

ODE has issued little guidance around medically fragile or intellectually and physically disabled students. Districts will have the authority to open — and decide to what extent — come the fall with some regulations in place from the department. 

Whether that means students will return to the classroom on a normal schedule, rotating schedule, hybrid model or continue to learn remotely has yet to be decided. 

“A hybrid is OK. We could handle that,” Kruse said for Julia. "A Google classroom with her teacher, we could manage, but not being able to go to school is like a punishment for her. She loves, loves school.” 

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