The Albemarle County school division told families that all students would be invited to at least a week of summer school, but that invitation was never extended to preschoolers in special education — a decision that has frustrated some parents.
“If you’re saying all students, then that should be all students,” said Jennifer Beard, the parent of a rising kindergartner at Stony Point Elementary who has been part of the division’s early childhood special education program.
Division staff members said at an April county School Board meeting that the full-week guarantee would be available to all elementary and middle school students, starting with kindergarten. Previous division messages to families just said all students. Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said that students in the early childhood special education program weren’t included because historically, summer school programming has not been offered to them.
“Participation in the programs this year is predicated on eligibility in prior years,” Giaramita said, adding that some special education preschool students who attend school this summer did so because of their individualized education plan and participation in the Extended School Year Program.
Preschool students in the Bright Stars program were offered up to two weeks of summer activities, which has been the case in previous school years, Giaramita said.
“The whole reason why we have [the early childhood special education] classrooms is to address the disadvantages that these students have compared to typical peers going into kindergarten at age 5,” Beard said. “And so you are not helping the problem by not including them in services that you’re providing to all students except for them.”
Beard added she wanted her 5-year-old daughter LB to be included in opportunities that all students are provided. She declined to provide her daughter’s full name due to privacy concerns.
Using $2.5 million in federal stimulus funds, the school division expanded its summer programming this year as part of a plan to help students bounce back from the last school year and prepare them for a return to full-time in-person schooling, officials have said in interviews and at board meetings.
High school students who didn’t complete classes virtually were invited to buildings for in-person support in addition to the more traditional summer school.
The division is planning to spend $10.7 million in federal stimulus funds over the next several school years on efforts related to learning recovery.
Students in kindergarten through eighth grade had the option to attend at least one week of the four-week program, officials said. Depending on academic need and other factors, some students were invited to attend all four weeks. Fewer than 20% of those families took the division up on its offer.
There were fewer than 50 students in the early childhood special education program, as of March, according to board documents.
Kelly Altizer expected her rising kindergartner at Brownsville Elementary School to get an invite, based on the division’s messages to families. But, she found out from Beard that would not be the case.
“I had assumed the whole time that if we wanted to do it for Kate, we could have,” Altizer said. “We just chose not to because she was already enrolled in another program for the summer.”
Schools Superintendent Matt Haas said in an April 18 news release that many students likely suffered learning losses and missed interactions with teachers and their classmates because they weren’t in school full time.
“This has been a constant focus for us and it will be the subject of our next School Board meeting on Thursday evening,” Haas said in the release. “It’s also why we are doing this summer what is a rarity for any school division: We are offering no-fee summer programming to all students at all of our schools from July 6-30, and we hope as many students as possible will be able to participate.”
Beard said not including preschoolers in special education was “depressing and laughable, all at the same time.”
“When the superintendent says all students, he doesn’t actually mean all students in so much as that doesn’t include preschoolers with disabilities,” she said. “There’s a total mismatch between stated priorities and what’s actually happening.”
After more than a year out of school, her daughter has missed out on time with typically developing peers, which has been challenging. LB has a rare genetic condition and medical issues put her at higher risk for COVID-19, so Beard said they were careful about whom she interacted with, moving all therapy outside.
“That’s one of the things that I think she’s really missed out on is that modeling that’s available to her by being with typical peers,” she said. “That was a huge benefit of being in the ECSE classroom before the pandemic.”
Beard and other parents interviewed said they were confused about the reliance on previous summers as a benchmark, especially as this year’s program was created in response to the pandemic.
“What it boils down to is that the idea behind this program is that all of the kids in the public school system had this mutual experience of loss of educational opportunities, and a really difficult thing that they all went through together,” Altizer said. “To leave out a group of kids because … traditionally they haven’t been able to access summer school services in the past? But this is a unique circumstance that now applies to all kids who were in the school system this year.”
Altizer said she’s seen a loss of skills in areas where her daughter receives therapy, such as for speech. Kate has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. She’s also non-ambulatory and nonverbal, making it difficult to access what she does or does know academically.
“We definitely have an understanding that there was a loss of skills and not the gains that we would have hoped to have seen her make in her last year of preschool, but we don’t really have a way to quantify it,” she said.
Experts have said since schools initially shut down in March 2020, they expected the closure and virtual schooling to have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable students, including those with disabilities. Gov. Ralph Northam has encouraged school systems over the last year to prioritize the youngest learners, students with disabilities and those who don’t speak English as a first language.
Lindsey Gelfand, parent of a rising kindergartner at Mountain View Elementary in the special education program, said finding services such as summer camp for her child has been difficult. Her 6-year-old, Ben, has Down syndrome and attention difficulties.
“We can’t just send our kids to a typical camp,” she said.
Eventually, Gelfand found a three-week camp that was designed for students with disabilities. She said the camp gave her son the chance to be around children his own age again.
In the last year, the most socializing Ben has had is with his two brothers, and he’s lost some social skills that would help in kindergarten, Gelfand said.
Academically, Gelfand said Ben couldn’t access the education virtually, and they relied on private tutoring to help him through the year.
“Getting him to attend to a screen was not possible,” she said. “We tried. It did not work.”
After a few days at the summer camp, she saw Ben start to improve. He was able to focus better and work on tasks longer.
“This gets him back to a seat at a desk and listening to instructions from someone who is not his parents,” she said of the camp. “It gets him back to a routine.”
However, she knows that not every family has the ability to hire tutors or pay for summer camp.
“We’re incredibly lucky that we have the financial resources to send our son to this camp,” Gelfand said. “It is not cheap. But we’re doing it because it’s important.”
As a way to help prepare rising kindergartners, schools hold camps specifically for those students. Beard said she found out about Stony Point’s two-day camp July 15, which is set to start in early August.
In the meantime, she’s worked with LB to foster a love of reading and to start learning some numbers, so she can be more prepared to start kindergarten. Books are her favorite thing, Beard said, and LB’s at the point where she can start reading words.