New York City special education teachers, especially those serving the neediest students, say the city has ignored the unique needs of students with disabilities in its plan to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. In interviews with Gothamist/WNYC, these teachers say they’re seeking more guidance on how to safely meet the instructional and emotional needs of their students, many of whom will not be able to adhere to mask mandates or social-distancing rules, before school starts next week.
A group of District 75 teachers and paraprofessionals sent a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 31st asking for a safety plan tailor-made for District 75, the city’s special education district serving students with more significant learning challenges. They say they have yet to receive an answer, or a plan.
“Talk to us. No one is doing that,” said Tameka Solomon, a special education teacher at P.S. 352 in the Bronx, who was not part of the group who wrote the letter.
“In this new normal, what is a District 75 school now going to look like?” she said. “How can we best support the teachers, the related service providers, the paraprofessionals in delivering the best instruction possible given the circumstances?”
District 75, which includes schools and programs all over the city, enrolls more than 25,000 students. Many neighborhood schools also serve students who need substantial support in the classroom, including children with autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities.
And for these students, the teachers said, many of the protocols for in-person learning do not make sense.
“These babies that have sensory issues that don’t even want to keep their clothes on sometimes—how are they going to be able to stay in a mask all day?” Solomon said.
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Solomon and other educators said social-distancing rules will be impossible to follow in certain cases, given that some students require one-on-one physical contact with providers for related services, such as physical therapy. Some students will need assistance in the bathroom, while others who are not toilet trained will need diaper changes by school staff.
Chad Hamilton, a District 75 teacher in Brooklyn, said regular classroom protocols could prove difficult for some of his students, too. In all New York City public schools, children will be expected to stay in one room for much of the day, and at a desk or table several feet apart from the next kid over.
“We have students who have a lot of difficulty remaining seated—even sometimes difficulty staying in the room,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he also wanted education officials to recognize how emotionally confusing this new environment might be for students. He said many of his students won’t be able to process why they can’t get a hug, or they might feel alarmed not seeing the faces of their teachers.
“The point is, they’re not going to be getting from us what they normally get,” he said. “And I think that’s going to be very difficult for a lot of them.”
In response to questions about reopening guidelines related to special education, Department of Education officials pointed to its plan to reopen schools submitted to New York state. The 109-page plan includes brief mentions of special education, but it does not address the safety concerns raised by teachers.
“Our District 75 students and families have been at the forefront of our planning for the duration of the pandemic,” said Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, in a follow-up statement.
Filson said District 75’s superintendent, Ketler Louissaint, has been working with schools to ensure they have the materials and resources they need to launch a new school year.
“We will continue to visit schools and classrooms regularly to check in with teachers, paraprofessionals, and related service providers to make sure they have what they need going into the fall.”
One thing on which both teachers and administrators seem to agree: students with significant disabilities will greatly benefit from a return to in-person schooling. Daily routine, interaction, and instruction are crucial for this population.
Anna Fridman, a Brooklyn parent with three young sons on the autism spectrum, said remote learning was a disaster for her children.
“It hasn’t been successful for us at all, and I will not return to it,” Fridman said. “I’m not going to put my kids through it and I’m not putting myself through it again.”
Her children, a 6-year-old and set of 5-year-old twins, are all non-verbal and need ample support at home and in the classroom. Fridman said she has been overwhelmed these last months that school has been closed—but not in the way people might think.
“I am overwhelmed because I know they’re not getting what they need,” she said. “So, to me, that’s very, very stressful.”
She said it has been painful to watch her older son regress socially, after he made progress working with the speech pathologist at school. The behavior issues of one of her 5-year-olds, who is more cognitively delayed than his older brother, have worsened. At one point, Fridman’s sister took out a loan so she could privately pay for some of the in-person services prescribed in her sons’ individualized plans for learning.
Teachers like Hamilton and Solomon said they’re eager to see their students again, after six months apart.
“I mean, think about it,” Solomon said, “we provide so much structure for our students. We provide so much support to them. I am sure they have lost so many skills during this time.”
That said, it would have been better if they felt confident in the city’s plans and guidance for this population of students.
“We’re smart,” Hamilton said. “We’ll figure things out. But we shouldn’t be winging it on on day one.”