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Letter Read at BOE Meeting (8/16/21): Vaccination Mandate

The following letter submitted by SEPAC was read during the public speaks portion of the 8/16/21 Board of Education meeting.

Good evening Dr. Taylor, Administrators and BOE Members,

The Executive Board of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (or SEPAC) here in our district is advocating for you to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all school personnel. We wrote to you last week about this issue and understand you support it but believe you do not have the autonomy to make the decision. Since then, we found out that another school district in New Jersey – Bernards Township School District – has done exactly that: mandated their school staff be vaccinated for COVID-19 by September 1.

We recognize you believe in the importance of vaccines by your partnership with Essex County to have a mobile vaccination unit at CHS tomorrow (Tuesday) and by publicizing it to families and employees. It is not enough though.

In our previous letter, we laid out a list of scenarios, including preschool program classrooms, self-contained classrooms and OT and PT sessions, that would be considered “HIGH RISK CONGREGATE SETTINGS”. Governor Murphy has mandated the COVID vaccine for staff in those settings and we believe it should stand for our schools as well. He has not made the decision for schools yet, but you can. 

We advocate for this vaccine mandate for the safety of our students and our staff. We also advocate for it for the consistency of learning and services. When more people are sick for longer stretches of time, there are more disruptions, and more disruptions mean students are once again being sent home to learn virtually. We would like for you to utilize ALL mitigating strategies at your disposal to help prevent that from happening.

Finally, we support weekly COVID-19 testing for those individuals who have sound reasons for not being vaccinated.

Thank you. 

SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE (8/11/21): Vaccination Mandate

The following letter was submitted on 8/11/21 on behalf of SEPAC to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, the members of the SOMSD Board of Education and other Maplewood/South Orange community leaders.

Greetings Dr. Taylor, Administrators, BOE Members and South Orange – Maplewood Community Leaders, 

I hope this email finds you well and enjoying your summer. 

I’m writing today on behalf of the SOMA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) to advocate for mandatory vaccinations for all staff, including outsourced Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Physical Therapists, Paraprofessionals, Lunch Aides, Teacher of the Deaf, Behaviorists/BCBAs, Bus Aides and Drivers. As you are aware, the transmission rate of the COVID-19 Delta Variant has a higher occurrence than the previous incarnation of the virus and because it spreads faster and more easily, there is a greater likelihood of children being affected by it. 

The most recent COVID-19 Update from the State of NJ reports the state has a vaccine requirement or be subject to ongoing COVID-19 testing for “Healthcare and High Risk Congregate Settings”. Based on the state’s list, which includes Day Programs, we believe some of our school-related environments fall into “high risk congregate settings”. This is especially relevant given that children under the age of 12 do not have the option yet to be vaccinated. 

Examples of these settings and the close contact activities that occur: 
– Preschool program classrooms, our 3-5yo students: Hand-over-hand assistance when providing support and accommodations; gentle touch reminders for redirection; physical comforting when upset; prevention of elopement; hand-holding for navigating stairs. Diaper changes for those not toilet-trained.  Bathroom assistance – using the toilet and washing hands. Assistance at snack and lunchtime: opening containers, food preparation, feeding students who have difficulty feeding themselves.
– Self-contained classrooms, particularly Autism Classroom, Preschool, K-2 and 3-5 grades: Necessary physical contact: hands-on and hand-over-hand assistance; deescalation strategies that may require physical interaction; prevention of elopement; physical comforting to help regulate and soothe. Bathroom assistance – using the toilet and washing hands.  Assistance at snack and lunchtime. 
– Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy sessions:  Hands-on assistance to help the student perform fine and gross motor skills that are specified in their Individualized Education Program.
– Speech Therapy sessions: Methods to improve articulation, swallowing and range of motion that include exercises involving the tongue, lips and jaw.
– Buses: Preschool/young students and some disabled students who need assistance getting in their seats and securing their seatbelts. Children who experience anxiety about separating from their caregiver when getting on the bus may require hands-on methods of calming by the bus aide. 

Regarding wearing masks: As many teachers and paraprofessionals will tell you, wearing masks for prolonged periods of time is not feasible for every child. This fall, students are expected to wear masks for not three or four hours but six or six and a half hours, or more, if they’re older. The likelihood of masks being taken off by certain students who don’t have the capacity to wear them is inevitable. Not only are the children at risk, any staff in contact with them are as well. 

Even while using mask mitigating strategies and having very small class sizes, over the course of our 6-week Extended School Year (ESY) summer program, multiple classrooms were shut down due to positive cases. Students were expected to do virtual school for two-week stretches and many families opted to skip those virtual days, knowing how difficult it is for their child to learn in this way. Students will not be able to skip school so easily this fall. 

As you’re likely aware, New York City is requiring its school personnel to be vaccinated. They are doing this without a mandate from the state and without the FDA approval of the vaccination. By making the vaccine mandatory, they are proactively using a strongly recommended mitigating factor that will lessen the spread of the virus. They are taking on the responsibility to keep people safe. 

Governor Murphy pleads for people to get vaccinated and insists on a full school day with no virtual option, yet there are students who cannot be vaccinated due to their age. With less than four weeks until Labor Day, he still has not mandated the vaccine for school personnel which leaves the responsibility to the local community and school leaders. 

Your roles as leaders in our district and community means you are accountable for providing a safe environment in our school district. We are at a time when a deadly virus still exists and is spread more easily than it did a year ago. It is not the time to wait and see how this plays out when you are asking families to send their children into old buildings with limited outdoor space, wear masks for hours on end and are deeply concerned about how lunch will work. We implore you to recognize the undeniable effectiveness of the vaccine as a mitigating strategy to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and take the necessary steps to require all adults who work with students be vaccinated or at the very least undergo weekly COVID testing. 

We also strongly urge you to partner with Essex County and the NJ Department of Health to help provide vaccinations and tests for any member of staff, not just those that live in SOMA. 

Thank you for your time and attention. We look forward to your reply. 

Best regards, 
Beth Cosentino 

Cosigned by Malia Herman, Kelly Mortimer, Nicole Stewart and Lindsey Stone

SOMA SEPAC Board, 2021-2022
Malia Herman, President
Beth Cosentino, VP of Policy Initiatives
Nicole Stewart & Lindsey Stone, co-VPs of Programming
Kelly Mortimer, Communications Officer 

Letter addressed to:
Dr. Ronald Taylor, SOMSD Superintendent of Schools; Village President Sheena Collum, South Orange; Mayor Frank McGehee, Maplewood; Candice Davenport, Maplewood Health Officer; John Festa, South Orange Health Officer; Dr. Melody Alegria, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services; Special Education Supervisors – Leroy Johnson, Karen Thomany, Sue Ellis, Roberto Mendez; Julie Porter, Head Nurse; Eric Burnside, Business Administrator; SOMSD BOE Members – Thair Joshua, Shannon Cuttle, Erin Siders, Susan Bergin, Annemarie Maini, Elissa Malespina, Chris Sabin, Courtney Winkfield, Johanna Wright

Letter read at BOE Meeting (2/22/21)

To the Administration, BOE members and SOMEA leadership:

I am addressing you today on behalf of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) to point out an urgent and critical issue that is affecting many special education families. Many children in our district had been receiving in-person Related Services, from Speech to OT and PT, since last September. Now, with in-person classes shuttered indefinitely, these in-person services have been shuttered as well, even though many of the therapists who render these services are not members of SOMEA but are hired through outside agencies. The children who receive these services are, by definition, the most vulnerable in our district. They are, in many cases, learning basic functions of holding a pencil, speaking, reading, self-regulation strategies, and so forth. We understand one of the issues is that these services cannot take place in district buildings because a nurse must be on site. We are asking to either waive this requirement or hire substitute nurses to be at the buildings so that therapists can offer these services. Or, if not at each building, then at the high school where there were safe spaces to administer therapy sessions and evaluations throughout the Fall. As the district and SOMEA meet with a mediator, we request that this issue be placed at the top of the agenda for immediate resolution. Additionally, we implore the district and SOMEA to find a way to offer special education students in self-contained classes – and Pull-Out Resource Rooms – the option of in-person learning. Many of these students have critical needs that are most appropriately met in-person and the longer they are kept in a virtual setting or bounced back and forth from classroom to virtual, the longer their IEPs remain out of compliance. The special education students who would be served by these two critical requests, do not include the hundreds of special needs children in inclusion classes, many of which are also in dire situations. Allowing these students the option to return to classrooms should be next in priority in any discussion regarding a return to buildings. The children represented by SEPAC are the most vulnerable. They should be front and center in any discussion or mediation regarding a return to classrooms.

Thank you for the attention. Malia Herman VP of Community Outreach Special Education Parent Advisory Committee

Tips for IEP Meetings (1/20/21)

For our January 2021 SEPAC Meeting, we discussed IEPs – goals, meetings and accommodations, for both in-person and virtual. Our co-VP of Programming Nicole Stewart, made up a Tip Sheet – attached below, to help with your child’s IEP.

Managing Behaviors and Mental Health Presentation by Solutions for Exceptional Children (12/13/20)

Nicole Stewart and Cheryl Irwin, of Solutions for Exceptional Children, put together a slide presentation in conjunction with our December 1, 2020 Meeting. Find it HERE.

Mental Health Presentation from December 1, 2020 SEPAC Meeting (12/13/20)

At the December 1, 2020 SEPAC Meeting, the focus topic was Mental Health and Behaviors during Distance Learning. There was panel discussion that included Arelis Tapia-Vargas, the School Social Worker from Clinton, and Laura Prato, one of the School Social Workers at Columbia High. They prepared a presentation for the evening that included resources for students and families who need Mental Health Support. Go HERE to see the presentation.

Letter to Dr. Taylor and BOE, submitted to Public Speaks (11/16/20)

November 16, 2020 BOE Meeting

Dr. Taylor, Board of Education members, Administration and Community members: 

Good evening.

We, the leadership of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (aka. SEPAC), listen to concerns of families of special education students in our district and pay attention to how these concerns are addressed. We are pleased with Dr. Alegria’s efforts, particularly how she and the Special Services department are helping teachers and families come up with individualized virtual programs for their students. We know there are more families who need support for their students and encourage teachers to read through the Virtual Accommodations manual that was provided to help them support every student individually. We also appreciate that Dr. Alegria is available to meet with us regularly and makes a point to drop in on our SEPAC community meetings. Up until her arrival, we had yet to have a leader of Special Services be so available, well-versed in the issues and transparent. 

In late September, the district prioritized three self-contained special education classrooms at Columbia High School for in-person learning and we commend you for ensuring a safe return for these students, their teachers and paraprofessionals. As Governor Murphy has left it up to each school district to decide what type of in-person instruction to offer, we urge you to continue to prioritize bringing back special education students, especially those who are in self-contained classrooms and the younger students struggling the most. You recognized the need to bring in younger students before older ones in the Hybrid Plan’s phased-in start, we hope you recognize the even greater need for special education students to return sooner.

We support relying on safety precautions first and foremost to go back inside buildings, however, there are now approximately 20 classrooms at Columbia High School opened safely. This leads us to ask: what about the other schools? We know some of them continue to have childcare through the YMCA, but we understand this arrangement would not be a deterrent to bring in the relatively few preschool, elementary and middle school self-contained special education students. We’d like to know that you are using ALL the available resources for these classes to make a safe return. 

We believe that our most vulnerable students should NOT be reliant on the district-wide hybrid plan, but they should have their own trajectory to returning to their buildings. These students have been able to remain in-district because their needs have been supported appropriately through these self-contained programs, but they need to be instructed in-person, just as the students at the high school are. 

Thank you for your attention and support.

SEPAC Board 2020-2021

Michele Richman, Malia Herman, Caryn Gehrke, Nicole Josey, Nicole Stewart, Lindsey Stone, Beth Cosentino and Ann Leeb

SEPAC Presentation by Gerri Colon (10/27/20)

Gerri Colon, Special Education Supervisor of 9-12 was SEPAC’s Guest Speaker at the October Meeting. The focus topic was evaluations, reevaluations, and the ABCs of Special Ed. In this slide presentation, Gerri addresses questions related to this topic.

The Presentation can be found here:

SEPAC BOE Questionnaire Responses 2020 (10/5/20)

We are pleased to share with you these 2020 Board of Education candidate statements on special education. We thank all the candidates for taking the time to share their perspectives.The Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) is not a political organization, and it does not endorse candidates in any election. This presentation is intended solely to assist voters by presenting candidate views on issues related to special education. The views expressed herein are the candidates’ own.

Results from the SEPAC Parent Survey, September 2020 (10/2/20)