Special education students make up 12 percent of the enrollment in Maryland public schools.
With the school year just getting under way with virtual learning, advocates and parents say many of those students are already at risk of failure.
Lisa Wiederlight is a single mom who lives in Baltimore County. Her 20 year old son, she asked we not give his name, goes to a public high school. He has autism. His education plan requires that he receive job training. He’s not.
“You have kids who need these end-of-their-school-career classes and experiences and they’re not getting them,” Wiederlight said.
When her son turns 21 next year, he will have to leave the school system. Wiederlight said it’s hard for autistic adults to find work.
She said her son last year had a good student job working on a farm, walking horses and otherwise caring for the animals. They wanted him back this year, but he can’t go because he needs a one-on-one aide which Baltimore County is not providing. No county school employees are face-to-face with students because of COVID-19.
“We’ve been told, ‘well if the parents take him he can do it, but the school can’t provide that service,’” Wiederlight said. “So unfortunately the parents work.”
Wiederlight wants students like her son to be able to stay in the school system until they’re 22, basically getting a redo year if they can’t get on-the-job training now.
“If they can’t for safety reasons, which I do understand, they shouldn’t have to lose out on that opportunity because a number comes up on a screen at 21,” Wiederlight said.
At a recent legislative hearing on special education students and remote learning, Assistant State Superintendent Marcella Franczkowski said an extra year could be considered if it’s found that losing the job training had a negative and regressive impact on the student.
“At this moment in time, while we remain hopeful, we do not know when schools will begin normal operations,” Franczkowski said. “However, our legal obligation and our moral imperative to provide a free, appropriate public education to all students, including students with disabilities remains in place.”
With that said, Franczkowski said they are acutely aware of the impact the closing of school buildings is having on disabled students, and it goes far beyond job training.
Their daily schedules have changed and some don’t understand why. They are socially isolated. They can’t get the in-person individualized instruction and therapy they need.
Rachel London, Executive Director of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, said now it’s up to families to fill those gaps.
“Not only now are they providing constant and consistent care, they’re also facilitating learning,” London said.
Those family members who are stepping into the breech are not properly trained.
Attorney Leslie Margolis with Disability Rights Maryland said there has been a lack of guidance from the state superintendent’s office on special education. Margolis said that’s left a patchwork of approaches that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Margolis said, “Not necessarily based on the needs of the jurisdiction or the children within that jurisdiction, but seemingly just based on whim.”
Margolis said parents with money can do things like hire teachers, while those without are left on their own.
Republican Delegate Wayne Hartman, who represents Wicomico County, said those school systems that don’t plan to have in-person classes until January need to bring special education students back sooner. Otherwise, the state could be on the hook to pay compensatory damages because those students aren’t receiving their legally required education.
“I feel that there’s going to be a huge liability on the state for failing those students,” Hartman said.
London said some special ed. students still might not be able to return because a medical issue would make it too risky to be in a group.
Meanwhile, it’s still uncertain when all students can safely be back in a classroom.