‘A heavy burden:’ Greenwich special education families feel ‘overlooked’ in opening days

GREENWICH — Just days into the new school year, some special education parents say they are concerned about services offered to remote students and what they call a general lack of communication from the school district.

Some parents spoke out at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, expressing that they felt “overlooked” and that their special education children were an afterthought. On Friday, the head of the teachers union in the Greenwich Public Schools called a recent change in special education staffing a “head-scratcher.”

“Currently, I am inundated with text messages and emails from special education families,” said Caroline Lerum, PTA Council chairperson for special education. “A concerning amount of remote families across the district are frustrated because of changes that occurred after school began.”

Primarily, special education parents were alarmed to learn after the new year began that there would not be a remote teacher assigned to each special education student, which is contrary to initial reopening plans. Lerum said many students began the school year without an assigned teacher and parents learned of the change only after initiating a conversation with the district.

After the start of school, Lerum said the district circulated a form to special education parents, asking them to sign off on changes to special education service about which many were confused. The form, she said, included a warning that the identity of special education students in a remote setting may not be protected and said that online sessions may be held with teachers and/or paraeducators — a distinction she said was concerning to parents.

“This form asks parents to give consent for their children to participate in remote services in a variety of unspecified ways with a variety of unspecified service providers,” Lerum said. “The communication gap, and thus frustration, with families is growing. Parents are frequently using the terms ‘overlooked’ and ‘afterthought’ when it comes to special education.”

In addition, Lerum said any change to a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), must be formally noted in a Learning Model IEP Implementation Form, which at least some parents hadn’t yet received. The concern is that by signing the form, parents may be giving the district latitude to alter their child’s IEP, she said.

“Parents are uncomfortable signing because of language on the form,” Lerum said. “Communication has got to improve and families have got to understand the full intent of the form.”

Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said he couldn’t comment, because the board has not discussed the issue. Superintendent Toni Jones and Chief Pupil Personnel Officer Mary Forde said in a statement Friday evening that they were working in partnership with parents to serve all students.

“We anticipated that the first few days of school, both in-person and remote, would be a learning experience as we get underway to find out what is working well and what needs to be improved,” Jones and Forde said. “We will work to improve clarity in communications to ensure there is no misunderstanding between our intentions and what is shared with our community.”

But teachers, too, have taken notice of the issue. Carol Sutton, president of the Greenwich Education Association, said at least some in the teachers union are concerned over the recent changes.

At the start of the scholastic year, the district was to designate teachers for special education students signed up for remote learning, a change that has created a sort of hybrid setting. Many teachers, Sutton said, are now simultaneously educating a classroom of in-person special education students and remote learners.

“Last week, overnight, the plan to provide services to the remote students with special education services was pulled,” Sutton said. “From the union perspective, teachers who were preparing to provide services remotely had the rug pulled out from under them. And the idea that special education students in a remote setting can be serviced by a teacher who’s now responsible for his or her in school case load, and the remote caseload simultaneously, is troubling.”

According to Sutton, the district cited changes in remote learning numbers as reason for the change in service. But Sutton said she believes the problems are the result of a continued lack of investment by the district in special education.

“The GEA believes that special education has been underfunded and understaffed for years,” Sutton said. “And at the moment, that trend is continuing.”

For some parents, the miscommunication and changes to education have had dire consequences.

Alyson Buck, whose son, Sam, has a rare neurological disease, said she feels her family has been left behind as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and how the crisis has interrupted learning. For the first two days of school, Sam, who just started fifth grade, had no teacher assigned to him, although his IEP calls for a designated full-time paraeducator.

The result has been an added strain on Buck, who, to make up for services that normally are provided by the school, now has to serve as her son’s care giver, special education teacher, para-educator and therapist.

“It is a heavy burden on top of what was already a heavy burden,” Buck said. “A burden that school needs to help alleviate and now has only compounded.”

[email protected]; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586

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