The following letter was submitted on behalf of SEPAC to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education, and read partially during the May 11, 2020, meeting of the BOE.
May 11, 2020
Dear Members of the Board of Education:
Recently, SEPAC leadership met virtually with Drs. Taylor, Alegria and Morana to discuss issues of great concern to families with children on IEPs and 504s within the South Orange Maplewood community. At the outset of that meeting, we stated what we feel is essential to acknowledge and what we repeat now, and that is this:
The situation we find ourselves, the coronavirus pandemic and the extended distance learning plan which has now gone on for two months and which does not have a foreseeable end, is no one’s fault and beyond the control of any of us. The challenges are unprecedented and the pandemic has put all of us in unchartered waters.
Our conversation assisted in understanding the deliberate thinking done by Dr. Taylor and his Senior Leadership Team in making decisions and communicating them. They appear to give each issue considerable thought and do not act in haste. They must follow broadly issued State guidelines and interpret them for local use while continuing to work on the district’s future, and not just its present. The district’s Access and Equity policy is an important community statement that attempts to create fairness for all students and guides their work. Leveling access to computers and the internet by distributing 900 computers and 100 hotspots has been a critical achievement.
It seems, however, that using the Access and Equity policy as the measure of what can be done and what cannot be done comes into conflict with the need for individualization that hundreds of students’ IEPs and 504s demand. SEPAC has heard from many parents about inconsistent (across and within schools) and inappropriate (to the individual student) service delivery of instruction and related services and the slow speed with which these things have taken place.
Inconsistencies have long existed in this school district, between its schools and even within its schools. During our meeting, Dr. Taylor informed SEPAC leadership of additional challenges that he faces that have exacerbated these issues. Some teachers are not as savvy about how to provide instruction through technology, there are those who are not comfortable teaching from their home, fearing criticism of one sort or another, some have their own children who must be attended to, etc. If we understood Dr. Taylor correctly, teachers have been given some latitude to provide instruction as they see fit using platforms of their choice. However, SEPAC is also hearing about restrictions to creativity that get in the way of meeting our children’s specific needs, particularly of a social and emotional nature. Is there a restriction against using Zoom or Google Meet to gather students together in an interactive or social skills group setting? One week, teachers use these platforms and then they do not. It is all now very unclear whether use of these platforms is permitted or encouraged.
At the same time, we are hearing from parents about those outstanding teachers and therapists who are going above and beyond, individualizing and trying their best to maintain the hard-fought academic gains a child on an IEP has made. We appreciate these people immensely and will always remember them and what they did during a most confusing and stressful period. They seem to know technology is a tool and teaching or treatment is a gift.
Teachers and paraprofessionals have their unions to speak for them. The district listens and negotiates appropriate adjustments. They have employment contracts with the district or a third-party vendor that must be honored. Parents, and specifically parents of children with special educational needs, do not have a union to convey their frustrations and concerns. SEPAC is their unified voice. Teachers are getting professional development to better design virtual instruction (hopefully, interactive instruction). But parents are the ones implementing the instruction, particularly of our youngest students and our most challenged. Where is our training? Parents are shouldering a significant portion of the load. In some of our cases, the parent is the teacher, therapy team, counselor, the one-on-one paraprofessional and the peers all rolled into one. SEPAC learned from Dr. Alegria that the paraprofessional corps has been doing extensive training on all sorts of crucial topics during the closure and will return more prepared to work with our children than ever before. This is, of course, wonderful news but where is the recognition of and the coordination with the parents who are doing their work right now?
I bring these points to your attention here in mid-May, 6 weeks before the end of the academic year. But for many of our most challenged and vulnerable children, the school year does not stop on the last day with the immediate commencement of Extended School Year. ESY will likely proceed virtually, even if the State allows for in building use on July 1.
Given the length of the school closure, SEPAC recommends:
* The review of every student’s IEP for ESY eligibility as difficulties with new issues of retention and regression developing during the distance learning period;
*Optional parent training and tutorials on topics such as the educational platforms being utilized, best practices for facilitating remote learning, behavioral interventions, motivational techniques, etc. made available to every family with an IEP and/or 504 plan;
*Access to additional services that address the social/emotional needs of our youngest students and our most challenged students;
*The district will need to plan for dual tracks of in-school and virtual instruction and related services going forward into the Fall as there are medically fragile children who are unable to attend in-school instruction and there will be other families likely to refuse to send their children back into the buildings until such time as COVID-19 is no longer a threat in our community.
Experts in the field of special education law have been recommending for weeks that school districts emphasize three things in their work with the families of children with special needs. 1. Act in good faith, 2. Collaborate with parents on planning and 3. Use Creativity. SEPAC does appreciate the difficult decisions and hard work that the administration has done during this period of distance learning and the limitations on the members of the Board of Education but we implore them, and you, to consider these three points in every plan as we all move forward together to proactively find solutions.
Ann Leeb, South Orange