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Supporting Families in Special Education

By Kathleen Mazurek

Blended learning and digital accessibility trained everyone to learn online safely, courtesy of the Office of Special Education. Now, we need everyone to support special public day schools and life skills classrooms in developing strategies for mutual aid for tele-therapeutic support for families in need. What can this look like? In a district as compassionate and creative as Baltimore City, the possibilities are dazzling. Mutual aid can be crowdfunding to support a specific family or hosting art or music benefit showcases to help families pay for therapeutic services not covered by insurance or federal medical assistance for individuals with disabilities. Mutual aid can also look like parent advocacy groups to navigate medical assistance, the Autism Waiver, or special education policy reform. Unofficial parties to show parents and students that we see them so they don’t feel alone supporting their child. Special public day schools and life skills classrooms have already returned to in-person learning first when our population is the most fragile and susceptible to COVID19 infection and death.  This is largely in part because parents need additional support at home; however, during a pandemic, it is a challenging task in school. 

Not only do staff provide direct support to help students access communication and academics, our staff change and feed students with concurrent medical and learning needs. In other districts, special public day schools will remain virtual until the Spring. We need the same grace. More teachers, PSRPs, families, and principals want to speak out but are experiencing retaliation from their schools or the district. My school has been doing everything to be transparent, support virtual learning by securing tech supplies, and PPE for all staff. Help us promote more dialogue so we can make more decisions united as a community of families and educators.

The numbers are telling: Here in BCPSS, only 20-25% of parents district-wide support in-person instruction and most of my school’s entire roster are opting for virtual instruction out of fear for their child’s life. The warm, thriving online communities we have built with our parents and students are in jeopardy when staff and students have been required to return in person by the District. Families opting to return need to be more connected to therapeutic in-home teletherapy services provided by the Autism Waiver and covered by Medical Assistance or community grants but are not being connected by the District. Families and educators need our support to help ensure that between now and January 2021 the district has clearer safety guidance, data tracking tools, and supplies to prepare for a new school experience. We need to start thinking about connecting families with students with special needs with mutual aid to pay for in-home tele-therapeutic supports. This can serve both special public day schools and all learners with special needs district-wide, like peers in Baltimore County and Howard County. Cost and awareness are the biggest barriers, but with dialogue and creativity, we can help surround families equitably with care.

Right now, some of my colleagues are required to report on-site when families can be better supported at home with online learning paired with proper in-home behavioral teletherapy services like their peers in the Baltimore County, Howard County, and in MANSEF schools (i.e. Level 5 non-public schools for students with special needs). Staff members who have served families for 10-20 years are putting their precious lives at risk and we would be losing their legacy when special education staffing is already a difficult matter. Help parents navigate and provide more education around the Autism Waiver, Medical Assistance, military insurance, private insurance, Family Service Waivers, funds from religious organizations, or community grants for in-home support services. Organizations that support these services and include Pathfinders For Autism, Wraparound Maryland, Arc of Baltimore, Trellis, and Advancing Abilities. The MSDE has paused in person respite care, but families can still be connected to social workers and behavioral therapists digitally so they do not have to navigate their child’s needs by themselves. Virtual learning until January allows so many students to continue growing their communication skills because they can safely socialize and receive individualized, multi-sensory lessons. ABA as a practice has come under scrutiny, but many services now focus on celebrating students’ differences, making it strength-based, and focusing on emotional health. All of this will be jeopardized by a rushed reopening plan. So far, I’ve had the same conversation with two different parents about their daughters being traumatized because they can’t hug their friends anymore. I worry how my students will internalize this long term and if they will socially withdraw. Trauma increases ACE scores–Adverse Childhood Experience metrics. The higher a student’s ACE score, the more trauma they have experienced, and because of this, they are at increased risk of physical and/or mental health ailments in their lifetime.

We need to start thinking about mutual aid as a professional community and especially for special education so families can equitably afford COVID safe tele-therapeutic services with medical assistance, insurance, or grants when families are ineligible for both options. Gains made for accessibility and therapeutic care affect all educators and we benefit from it directly with accessibility tools, blended learning, student wholeness programs, and flex classrooms. How can we start planning for mutual aide for the special education community within both special public days schools and every school in Baltimore City Public Schools? Camille Gibbs, an art teacher in Baltimore County, raised money for students in her school with an art show to pay for Autism Waiver services with local agencies that had stronger ties to their community. We desperately need this innovative thinking now. The numbers of families returning are small, their needs are daunting, and their care deserves to be covered with more intention. Many parents who are returning feel like they have no other choice and one should be ashamed of asking for help. What better time than now to discuss rebuilding schools with more therapeutic public and private partnerships? We can help families in the special education community celebrate each other while celebrating with them as a whole school.

Kathleen Mazurek is a Special Education/Art Education teacher at the Baer School.