Some special ed students could return to schools for in-person services under CPS proposal

Chicago Public Schools officials are looking to offer in-person therapy to special education students who might otherwise find difficulty receiving those needed services at home.

While the details are still being worked out, the district says its proposal would bring students into schools for hearing and vision screenings, special education evaluations and occupational and physical therapy.

CPS “strongly believes that specific types of student services … can be delivered in-person safely and must be delivered in-person for our most vulnerable students to benefit,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement.

Currently, all students are attending classes remotely and not reporting to buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan has faced some criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, which first revealed its discussions with CPS officials in a conference call with reporters Monday. Union President Jesse Sharkey, who said the offerings aren’t imminent because key details are still being negotiated, said he has health concerns around bringing kids to schools, though he acknowledged virtual therapy is extremely difficult.

“Therapeutic services are one of the areas where trying to connect to people through a computer screen is just harder,” Sharkey said. “This is one of the places where the stress of a pandemic really shows up.”

Sharkey said it would be incumbent on CPS to minimize all non-essential school activity to create room for those services to be carried out at schools where, in many cases, there have been concerns about insufficient masking and dirty conditions. Sharkey referenced the district’s requirement that school clerks report to work in person for the first quarter of the school year, a mandate that is the subject of ongoing labor complaints by the CTU against CPS.

Sharon Gunn, a clinician who works at several schools, said she worries the students she serves would not be able to wear masks or stay socially distant. She added that many clinicians have case loads of more than 50 students, with therapy sometimes administered in group sessions — something that might not be compatible with COVID.

“My major concern is that we are placing high-risk students in a potentially compromising situation due to COVID,” she said.

Gunn also said busing students to schools, which CPS is considering, could put students and staff at risk.

Bolton, the CPS spokeswoman, responded later Monday that it was “deeply concerning that the CTU is yet again standing in the way of ensuring our most vulnerable students can safely access the critical in-person services they need.”

Bolton acknowledged CPS has heard “widespread concerns of non-compliance” with health protocols in schools but said anyone who doesn’t follow masking rules would be subject to discipline. She said all schools are also requiring temperature checks and symptom screeners, and have electric spray disinfectant misters and hand sanitizer. Sneeze guards were installed at every school, she said.

“Most importantly, school buildings are still nearly empty and there is ample room for social distancing,” Bolton said.

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