REGION — More than 200 special education students across the Wachusett Regional School District returned to school classrooms on Oct. 5 for in-person learning, along with a large number of support staff including teachers, school psychologists, nurses, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) paraprofessionals and other paraprofessionals, and speech, occupational, and physical therapists.
“We have districtwide safety procedures and school-specific safety procedures,” said Christine Smith, Wachusett’s administrator of special education. “All staff have been trained on the proper use of and disposal of PPE and sanitizing. We have new routines for students and staff, but everyone is ready. I have been saying since March, together we can climb this mountain, and today I can say, we are approaching the summit and we are ready to soar.”
Smith, who has been in her role since July 2019, said 124 of those special education students will be transported to their respective schools in vans.
“I held a kick-off meeting with all of the staff (on Oct. 2) to share my enthusiasm and my confidence that we are ready,” Smith said. “We can serve our students in person and we can, with the support of the community and families, set rigorous goals and expect our students to exceed them.”
The WRSD used directives from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine which special education students would be returning to classrooms at this time, including those with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, in place.
“We used the directives from DESE that told us to consider each case, to consider the youngest children, and to look at the kids of the highest need,” Smith said. “We have a document in the IEP that identifies the child by high, moderate or low need based on the amount of time they are outside of the general education classes, the amount of time they spend with special education providers, and the amount of consultation that they require.”
Smith said special education staffing is based on student need.
“One of the many reasons why I love working in WRSD is that here students get what they need,” she said. “Principals know their students, families and staff very well, and they advocate for what the students need. We have all been working so hard to make this reopening a success. We can’t wait to see the kids.”
Many WRSD staff members not only work but also live in the district.
“We know the challenges of this pandemic on the family, the strain on the children, and we know the stress of trying to be all for everyone,” Smith said. “We know that opening for just 200 students isn’t enough, but we are glad to be moving in this direction.”
The Wachusett Regional School District Special Education Parent Advisory Council has been working with district administration and staff to get students back for in person learning safely.
SEPAC co-chair Melissa Martin, who has a high school student with special needs, said SEPAC services around 1,200 families in the district.
“We believe all special education children need to be back, instead of just a small percentage of students,” she said.
Martin wrote a statement on behalf of SEPAC that was read at the WRSD School Committee meeting on Sept. 29. The statement was written as follows:
Through COVID, the SEPAC has closely partnered with the SPED office — through ESY planning and more recently with providing special updates and Parent Q&A. The SEPAC appreciates the extra time spent by the SPED team along with union reps, principals, teachers and parents to provide more answers. However, we have more to do. We have outstanding issues we need to escalate to have resolved. In a similar manner the School Committee is creating more transparency around risks, issues and plans, the SEPAC also is pursuing more documented updates for outstanding risks, issues and plans.
We wanted to let the school committee know that as parents we are very concerned about the education and well being of our children. The most vulnerable children were scheduled to start school during the summer, but with unexplained last-minute changes that didn’t happen. DESE had made it clear that in person instruction was necessary for Special Needs children. Yet we are still have zero children in school in our district. How do we find this acceptable? We understand the times have been difficult, but there are schools such as BayPath that have every IEP child attending in person school daily since school started, yet we still have zero. The plan submitted to the School Committee called for the most vulnerable children to be returned to school Oct 5 for half-days, then proceeding to full days the following week. On Friday, parents were notified of yet another change from the plan. Now the limited number of students will only receive half days for 3 weeks. Why do they need to be part-time instead of in the building fully accessing the curriculum and their teachers? How does this effect the next, much larger, group of students that are to return that following week who have received no communication from administration? We are asking that the committee to put our children first, and find a way to get them back into in person schooling immediately. We ask that you hold Administration accountable and responsible for finding a way to education our children. Every day a child doesn’t attend in person school education cannot be accessed, skills regress or disappear, and their independence lost. Our children cannot afford to wait any longer.’
SEPAC held a virtual meeting in the evening on Oct. 5 to conduct yearly elections and get an update from Smith, who addressed questions, on the reopening of the schools for special education students.
For more information on SEPAC and special education in the district visit wrsd.net/special_ed, email [email protected], visit sites.google.com/wrsd.net/sepac, and follow Wachusett Special Education Parent Advisory Council – WRSD SEPAC on Facebook.
Free meals are available for all district enrolled students for pick up on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at several district schools. For more information and to be added to the list, visit wrsdschoolnutrition.com, call WRSD Supervisor of School Nutrition Margret Barton at 508-829-1670 or email her at [email protected]