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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
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.
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.
November 16, 2020 BOE Meeting
Dr. Taylor, Board of Education members, Administration and Community members:
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
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: https://sepacsoma.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/sepac-presentation-by-gerri-colon.pdf
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.
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
The following letter was sent to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education, and read aloud during the Public Speaks portion of their April 20, 2020, meeting.
BOE members and Dr. Taylor, this is a message I have written to my fellow parents of children with special needs. I felt you should read it as well…
April 20, 2020
Dear fellow parents,
We are all going through an impossible situation. Parents, students, administrators, teachers, counselors, therapists, paraprofessionals, are living a reality that isn’t normal. But it is where we are and we have to be able to somehow come together and make it work, on some level, for all of us.
Our world is experiencing an international health catastrophe that is extremely stressful and frightening, for everyone.
This impossible situation is going to go on for longer than any of us want to think about. While we are in it, the greatest challenge, while trying to educate our children, will be to be forgiving to ourselves. We cannot do what their teachers, therapists, counselors, paras, case managers do.
We need to consider our expectations and weigh them against our reality.
We cannot expect our children to receive, anywhere close to, the level of special education in distance learning that they receive at school. It is not possible. As parents, we do not have the expertise, training, or time to take on the responsibilities of a team of educational professionals.
However, we can and do expect…
1. Clear regular communication that comes (more often than it has) from the Special Services Department and from all the service providers.
2. Considerable support, thoughtful collaboration and partnership from school staff and District administration. They all work for the benefit of our students and should be reaching out regularly with suggestions, strategies, understanding and encouragement. There should be proactivity, not just waiting for families to reach out to them.
3. An acknowledgement that families are expected to do a nearly impossible task to educate their special needs children. (I feel that this fact hasn’t been stated enough.)
4. The rights of every special education student are followed in an equitable manner. Any student that has related services should be offered it via teletherapy. It may not be as often or as long, but it is not up to the District to decide who shouldn’t get these services. Each therapist should reach out to their students/families to coordinate these services and schedule a session at least 1x/week.
5. An equitable grading plan shared with special needs students in the middle and high schools. These children, in particular, are experiencing a high level of stress and anxiety due to the lack of necessary supports from not being at school and a plan needs to be made clear to them and their families.
6. Shifting everyone’s expectations from assignments getting completed to recognizing that any work that the student is getting done is a success.
I believe that the most important message to our children from us, the families, and from the School District, is to let them know that they are safe at home and we are going to help them be the best students that they can be at this time. It will be different than how they are at school and that’s okay. When they go back, they will get support and care needed to be the best students they can be at school. There are enough stressors from the very nature of this situation that adding to it by dwelling on the impossibility of providing special services that we don’t have the wherewithal to give is not going to make things better for anyone.
Don’t get me wrong; I feel angry, frustrated, disappointed and scared. I hate that my daughter isn’t at school receiving the special education that is hers to receive. But I put those negative feelings aside so I can help my child have a positive home learning experience. I encourage everyone to do the same. And, as cliché as it sounds, remember that we are all in this together so let’s support and encourage each other and all of the people that are trying to make this impossible situation work, while I look forward to the same encouragement and support from them.
Special Education co-Liaison, Tuscan
The feelings and concerns expressed reflect those of Special Education Parent Advisory Committee leadership and they have chosen to co-sign this letter.
Ann Leeb, President of SEPAC
Michele Richman, Vice President of Outreach
Michael Thompson, Vice President of Policy
Malia Herman, Secretary
Michael Donoghue, Budget Advisor
Reesa Salomon, Past President of SEPAC
Alex Dubin and Lindsey Stone, Special Education co-Liaisons, Montrose
Caryn Gehrke and Anna Herbst, Special Education co-Liaisons, Seth Boyden
Alison Kuhlman, Special Education co-Liaison, Tuscan
Allison Gluck and Jeremy Wintroub, Special Education co-Liaisons, Marshall
Brooke Horowitz, Special Education Liaison, Clinton
Jennie Fischette, Special Education Liaison, Jefferson
Michelle Reback, Special Education Liaison, South Mountain
Jocelyn Ryan, Special Education Liaison, South Orange Middle
Pam Donoghue, Special Education Liaison, Maplewood Middle
John Clarke, Special Education Liaison, Columbia High
Danielle Perrotta, Special Education Liaison, Out of District