With Newfound Flexibility and Instructions to Proceed “Immediately,” Connecticut Schools Grapple With Transition to Online Education

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With the requirement for 180 days of school instruction waived, and an application pending to suspend mandated student assessments, school districts across Connecticut are grappling with what it means for 77,000 students with an individualized education plan, and how they will follow instructions from the state to “immediately proceed” with online education.

“We are focusing all of our energy and efforts on supporting students and their families during this national emergency, including students with disabilities,” said Miguel Cardona, commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut. “Keeping students’ health and safety at the forefront, [Connecticut State Department of Education] is assisting school districts with their responsibility to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same educational opportunities as the general student population during school closures.”

For districts starting online classes, however, the rapid transition leaves them with little time to prepare for what special education services look like online.

“To be honest we are all trying to make the best of the situation as possible,” said Mark Sommaruga, an attorney specialized in education law for Pullman & Comley. “One of the things that comes true in the federal Department of Education guidance is that we are all going to do this the best practical way.”

Compared to previous school shutdowns, such as during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Summaruga said that both state and federal governments seem much more willing to excuse statutory deadlines, allowing districts to decide how to proceed with special education planning, placement and evaluation — remotely if possible — or whether to wait until schools are reopened.

“As outlined under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special education supports and services are determined based on individual student needs.  As we continue to receive guidance from the federal and state governments, LEARN will work closely with all stakeholders to ensure that students with special needs enrolled in our schools and programs have continued access to continuous learning to the greatest extent possible,” said Kate Ericson the executive director for LEARN, southeastern Connecticut’s Regional Education Service Center.

With distance learning, some requirements for special education and for individual education plans likely cannot be met — these include physical and occupational therapy, some basic skill learning for students with autism, one-on-one instruction when needed, as well as initial evaluations for disabilities.

“In alignment with guidance from the Office of Special Education Programs at the federal level, school districts are working to provide special education and related services to the greatest extent possible during school closures due to COVID-19,” Cardona said. “Our Bureau of Special Education is also developing clarifying guidance and has been and will continue to be available to provide technical assistance to our district partners during this unprecedented time in education.”

Federal and state agencies and as well as Regional Education Service Centers are providing resources for school districts as they are produced. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, detailed guidance will be available by Monday of next week.

“When we are all said and done, will there be circumstances where we will have to do compensatory services? I’m sure of it,” Sommaruga said. “We will need to see what is lost for all students during this time, but from the legal perspective the state and federal governments are likely going to be a lot more lenient.”

School districts are doing their best to make sure a semblance of education and learning continues during the shutdown.

Most schools — including schools in Region 4 and Lyme-Old Lyme — have already, or will soon be, distributing educational materials for at-home study for the majority of enrolled students.

“We remain committed to meeting the needs of all of our learners in every way possible. More specific information will be shared about this aspect of our planning in the days ahead,” said Brian White, superintendent of Region 4 Schools.

In Lyme-Old Lyme, all students are instructed to pick up electronic devices, instruments and other necessary materials this Friday at an assigned time between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. according last name.

“Our IT team has worked diligently to prepare every device with the appropriate software and applications for each individual student. The devices were tested and disinfected prior to distribution,” according a post on the Lyme-Old Lyme School website.

White said that in Region 4 — which draws students from Essex, Chester and Deep River — teachers will be communicating daily with all students, reviewing submitted work and providing students with feedback.

“Some types of assessment will be possible within this framework,” he said. “However, assessment will look different by subject area and level, just as it is in traditional school.”

The focus, according to the State Department of Education, should be on preparing students for the next school year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken an emotional toll on our school communities with significant disruptions to classroom learning that will affect Connecticut’s ability to administer assessments and produce valid results. When students and educators return to school in Spring of 2020, they will be coming back from an extended absence. Districts should prioritize re-acclimating students, addressing their social-emotional needs, and providing high quality learning opportunities that prepare them for the following year,” Cardona said. “This is not a decision I make lightly, however, this is an unprecedented time for public education. We are committed to supporting our students, teachers, leaders, and families and ensuring they feel a sense of normalcy and stability if and when they return to the school building this year.”

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