On July 6, school districts across Connecticut will be allowed to begin in-person summer school, according to draft guidelines released by the Connecticut Department of Education. But in contrast to nearly every other school closure decision made during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state will allow local and regional school districts the final say on whether to reopen for summer instruction.
“July 6 is the first day we could be in-person. We’ve been discussing it since it was released last week and trying to determine what is feasible and what we can do by that date,” said Jan Perruccio, the superintendent of Old Saybrook Public Schools.
The question each district faces is whether staff and students will be better served by in-person or by remote education this summer.
In Old Saybrook and East Lyme, the answer looks like a little bit of both. In Lyme-Old Lyme, according to superintendent Ian Neviaser, all programming will likely remain remote.
“After an initial review of the surveys we sent to parents, it looks like there is not a lot of interest in doing an in-person summer school,” Neviaser said.
Summer school typically consists of special education programs that are part of a child’s individualized education plan (IEP), additional support for elementary school students identified by teachers for extra help and a credit recovery program for high school students.
If any of these programs are held in-person this summer, the Department of Education draft guidelines will require that a medical professional be present at all times in the school building, that the temperature of all students be taken at the start of the day, that all students and staff wear masks, that all students and staff remain at least six feet apart and that no more than one teacher and ten students are present in a classroom at any given time.
In addition, schools must provide masks and testing to all students and staff on-site and all participants must receive in-person or video training on proper hygiene and social distancing. If busing is required, students must sit no closer than ever other row and a bus monitor must be present on every vehicle.
“There is a lot we’d have to do and we only have a month to prepare,” Neviaser said. “I’m not even sure we can get all the PPE required in a month with wait times being so long.”
The challenge of special education
Although allowing school districts the flexibility to reopen on a district-by-district basis gives school officials the opportunity to account for diverse local and regional challenges, it also poses potentially drastic differences in what services are provided to students across Connecticut.
“Unfortunately, this decision has been left up to the district, leaving families unclear as to what their child is entitled to,” said Jeffrey Forte, a lawyer specialized in special education in Connecticut.
According to Forte, the lack of clear guidelines for distance learning has made it difficult to determine whether students are receiving the instruction that they should.
“Special education during this time has really been more of a partnership with families,” Perruccio said. “The family has filled the role of the instructional assistant as teachers and staff make individual calls to parents to walk them through material and learning goals.”
Services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy or even certain types of tutoring for students with special needs has not been possible during the school closures.
In recognition of the likely disproportionate harm to children with special needs, English Learners, and students with limited access to technology,
the state’s new draft guidelines encourage districts to prioritize these groups in planning for the summer.
“Districts are required to implement IEPs to the greatest extent possible given the current public health mandates/requirements and they will continue to do so,” said Peter Yazbak, director of communications for the state Department of Education. “Districts should be following the public health mandates and providing continued educational opportunities for all students, including students with IEPs. This will be true for in-person, continued distance learning or blended learning opportunities.”
Many school districts are taking this advice to heart.
“Special education has been our concern from the beginning,” Perruccio said. “The ability to construct distance learning has gotten better throughout this whole time, but it’s not perfect. Teachers have been trying to respond to the individualized education plans and I can say we are lucky to be small.”
A recommendation, not a mandate
If a child with special needs is not offered in-person services, despite those services being required in their plan, it is not clear whether there is any legal recourse available for the family.
“I’m advising my clients to continue to take data of their child’s progress or regression and request assessments and evaluations to determine the child’s level of performance as soon as school resumes,” Forte said.
Forte said if that means holding a child back a grade level, families should fight for that, despite a statewide push to avoid holding students back due to the pandemic.
“Special education students have the right to retention, it is a PPP decision to hold a child back a year. Many districts will say it’s not a PPP decision, but it actually is. It’s not up to a principal or a teacher alone,” Forte said. “It should be on a case by case basis.”