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Here's why some high needs students are already in Somerville classrooms

Wicked Local Metro - 2/24/2021

Feb. 24—While remote education has presented challenges for many families, Somerville families with high needs students — especially those who require in-person therapies — have had a particularly tough time.

Somerville parent Julia Toof's 3-year-old son has autism, and an individualized education plan (IEP) in the district.

"We haven't done remote services this whole year because his IEP can't be met," she said. "He's autistic: he can't handle remote learning — it doesn't work and it deregulates him."

Her son typically receives several in-person therapies, which haven't been available through the district. Toof said her family has been traveling to services and paying co-pays out of pocket, because they have the resources and consider it important for his continued development.

Christine Trevisone, director of special education, said that — per Department of Education regulations — the district met with all families last spring to develop a special education COVID-19 learning plan, and have conversations about services, such as physical therapy.

"Some people found it was helpful to start off by physical therapist sending them home some exercises to do or particular things relevant to their child — videos or something like that — not accessing it remotely with our goal being we'd move towards more video-based synchronous instruction," she said. "We check in with families who have not accessed a lot of services or may be struggling to access services. We keep ongoing records...but we also have own tracking form that tracks every service on IEP we wrote for a COVID-19 plan to say, are the children accessing this? What do we need to do?"

Before the weather got really cold, Trevisone said staff members who wanted to meet with students outside offered a couple hours of services under tents. After that, the district started a voluntary program for high-needs students that brought about 200 total students back into classrooms at the Argenziano, Capuano, East Somerville, Winter Hill, Healey, Kennedy and West Somerville schools.

Toof's son was among them. He was tested for COVID the last week of January, and began attending for two hours a day, four days a week at the Capuano School the first week of February.

To start, Toof was unsure how her son was identified as eligible for this programming.

"What was strange to me was that this in-person program was not offered to other kids in his ECIP [Early Childhood Intervention Program]," she said. "He was being moved out of his prior program into another, which was being considered high-needs SPED. I was told we were offered a spot because he didn't do well in virtual learning...I just feel bad that a lot of parents with kids the same age that have the same diagnosis are not in school, and did not get the same offer, including the parents of kids supposed to be in the same assigned class. Some kids that have ASD and similar IEPs were not offered the same thing."

Trevisone said students were deemed eligible based on state guidelines that prioritize high-needs students who spend a significant chunk of time in self-contained programs. She said the district data showed that early childhood students, first- and second-graders in this area, were struggling the most, and so they were invited to participate in this voluntary program.

The recently posted general reopening plan shows this continued prioritization of high-needs students, with high-needs and younger special education learners to return March 4, followed by March 8 and March 25 returns for other special education populations.

As far as her son's IEP, Toof said they are still seeking outside, in-person therapies and paying out of pocket.

"Other parents have requested compensatory services, and the School Committee was supposed to start discussing that on Dec. 15 according to DESE guidelines, but we've been told to wait until spring," she said.

Toof was initially surprised to hear her son would be able to learn inside, especially after all the delays due to HVAC updates throughout the district.

"What surprised me were two things: I couldn't find anything about it online, and we were told to pack a sweatshirt because the window would be open," said Toof. "That threw me for a loop, because we've spent months hearing about the HVAC being updated. The building is from 2003, the HVAC shouldn't be in that bad shape...and couldn't windows have been opened back in August? Couldn't they have been in-person all along?"

Though Toof hasn't seen the setup in person — drop-offs happen outside the school — she's seen photos, and said the children all have desks 6 feet apart. There are six students to a classroom, and students and staff are all getting tested weekly and wearing masks.

According to the city, city health experts said that the pilot was safe given the limited time inside, limited number of students, and universal participation in the testing program, as well as social distancing, wearing PPE and practicing good hygiene. Portable air filters are also in use throughout school buildings.


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