When the Albemarle County School Board voted to start the school year in Stage Two of its reopening plan, Bettina Stevens expected that her son, a third-grader at Mountain View Elementary with severe autism, would go to school.
The division had said it would invite select groups of students to take instruction in-person, including some with disabilities, English Learners and those without internet access as part of an effort to make sure those who wouldn’t benefit from virtual learning could get extra help.
Stevens found out a week before the start of the school year that her son wouldn’t get that invitation after the division’s special education department determined that he would get a meaningful education benefit through online classes at home. The decision confused Stevens.
After fighting “tooth and nail,” Stevens got an invitation for her son and he’s now going to school four days a week, where he works with an aide on his online classes. He’s one of about 73 students with special needs in the county going to school buildings during the first quarter; the division estimated that about 100 would qualify.
“Because my son can’t access virtual learning without a one-on-one aide, and he has an [intensive] behavior plan with breaks and visual aids [to help him read],” she said. “… They initially told me now he’s going to do 100% virtual from home. And I fought for three and a half weeks to get him in-person.”
Kevin Kirst, the division’s director of special education and student services, said that students were selected for in-person classes if, based upon information from our teachers and therapists, they would not be able to receive any meaningful education benefit online.
Schools staff also looked at the education setting students are placed in. The vast majority of students with special needs are in the general education setting, meaning they are in classes with their typically developing peers.
“This of course is based upon the conviction that in this setting, they are able to receive meaningful education benefit from their educational program,” Kirst said.
Using the education setting as a standard and the School Board’s direction to limit the number of children in schools for Stage Two, Kirst said the department decided to consider in-person instruction for students in two specialized programs known as A-Base and C-Base, which serve students with autism and those limited in their ability to perform independently cognitive or behavior function, among other needs.
“These two programs have the most intense student to staff ratios, he said. “This is a viable indicator of those children with the most significant needs, requiring special services.”
Overall, there are 379 students in those two programs.
In Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan, all students in those two programs could have in-person instruction along with all pre-K through third-grade special education students.
Krist said the special education department didn’t change the instructional model from in-person to virtual without communicating with parents of children with IEPs.
“It is possible a parent of a child in an A-BASE or C-BASE program may have concluded that since these programs were referenced in the July 30 School Board discussion that all students in these programs were eligible to come into school,” he said.
He added that the department is continuing to meet with parents to answer questions or to review how well their child is learning in a virtual mode.
“In instances where it can be established that a child is not able to obtain any meaningful education benefit online, we have changed that child to in-person instruction,” he said, adding that all IEPs have been updated and will continue to be reviewed to reflect each child’s instructional setting.
Stevens is the executive director of Reclaimed Hope Initiative, an organization that works with foster, adoptive and special needs families in the area, and has talked with several other families who had a similar experience and have struggled with online classes.
“Every family is drowning,” she said. “Their kids are hating school. They’re depressed. They can’t even access more than 30 minutes of a virtual environment.”
Stevens is working with a group of families to write letters to the School Board and division hoping to discover how they decided which students could go into the buildings. They haven’t heard back, she said.
In a Sept. 3 letter signed by about 25 families, they threatened legal action, alleging that the way students were deemed eligible for in-person access violated federal law.
“Nobody is listening, and nobody’s even willing to just talk,” Stevens said. “I don’t want litigation. I just want them to talk and meet the needs of my kids.”
Students in special education have an individualized education program, which outlines specific goals, services and accommodations and placement. A team usually consisting of a parent, the special education teacher, general education teacher and an administrator are tasked with reviewing the IEP to make sure its meeting the needs of the student.
The crux of the families’ concern is that county school officials didn’t consult IEP teams in making their determination. Federal law governing students with disabilities has not been suspended during the pandemic, and school systems are still required to ensure that students receive a free and appropriate public education — the federal standard.
The School Board is set to vote Thursday on whether to move to Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan, which would allow more students to go into the buildings for classes.
Since schools closed in March, students with disabilities have been considered an at-risk group. The Virginia Department of Education has recommended in-person services for special education students at each of the state’s phases for school reopenings.
Charlottesville City Schools said last week that it is providing face-to-face services that are tailored to the individual student for those who were having difficulty with the virtual classes. About 11 students last week were receiving those services and two were in the orientation phase, where they learning about the new procedures in the building and practice wearing a mask. The division was in the planning phase for another 13 students.
The state’s reopening guidance for schools says that students should only attend in-person programs if the IEP team agrees it’s appropriate and the parent consents.
Parents in Albemarle County could decline the invitation for in-person access.
‘Devastating for families’
Amy Walters with the Legal Aid Justice Center said she has heard from families who have children with higher needs that were not able to get information or IEP meetings.
The calls started after those families got the notification that their kids wouldn’t be going into the school buildings for assistance.
She said she wishes the division had outlined a plan in the beginning for how to provide in-person services to families.
“I think that would at least provide some comfort to families who are really struggling,” she said. “They feel like they have to comply [with virtual learning], but their kids can’t sit in front of a screen for more than a few minutes. It just sounds torturous.”
Guidance from the state and federal departments of education as well as the school system’s focus on equity set up an expectation that the highest need students would get served, Walters said.
“Then to get a letter from Albemarle a week before school started, pulling the rug out from under them, was pretty devastating for a lot of families,” she said. “Legally speaking, it seems like all of these kids are going to be entitled to compensatory services, and have valid legal claims if they did litigate them. It seems sort of short sighted to do to do what they’re doing now, when it can mean a lot of liability later.”
Fighting for in-person access
Jen Prichard’s seventh-grader at Henley Middle School will start going into the school building Thursday — about five weeks after she called for an IEP meeting to discuss her child’s placement.
Prichard wrote an open letter in July advocating for in-person classes for students with disabilities and has since started working with Stevens. She’s also talked with families who have had similar experiences.
When her daughter, Ruby, who is in the C-Base program, wasn’t going to get in-person instruction, she asked for a meeting and pressed for more information.
She was told that the division was looking at the student’s least restrictive environment, which was general education. Since most general education students were virtual, that meant her daughter would stay online.
For the first weeks of the school year, Prichard hired an aide to work with Ruby, though she said the online classes were still exhausting. In the school building, she’ll also work with an aide on the online classes.
Prichard said her daughter’s teachers at Henley have put a lot of thought in the online classes and regularly check in. She added that she’s fortunate to be able to hire an aide, but said she shouldn’t have to.
“And so that’s what I’m in this fight for,” she said.
Prichard added that some parents might think they are fighting for babysitting. That’s not the case, she said.
“We just want an educational environment for our kids that is as equal to the educational environment that your kids are getting as it can be,” she said.