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COVID-19 Making Transition For Disabled Students Even More Challenging

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Baltimore County Public Schools
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It’s been a long road to graduation for Raymond Shaw Finney.

He was born with multiple disabilities. His father died when he was an infant. Raymond slipped into the foster care system. Then eight years later, a family member recognized a picture of Raymond on AdoptUSKids, a website that connects foster children with permanent families. She told Raymond’s aunt, Vanessa Finney, to have a look.

And when she did she immediately recognized her nephew.

“Once I did that, tears just started flooding because, me being the oldest sibling, I remember what my brother looked like and it was like I was looking at his twin,” Finney said.

Finney said Raymond was nine years old and weighed 40 pounds. She and her husband decided to adopt their nephew as their son. The adoption was approved on October 5, 2010, her brother’s birthday.

“So now, today, Raymond weighs about 115,” Finney said. “And he’s happy and doing very well.”

And he’s a 21 year old graduate. Last week, Raymond graduated from Battle Monument School in Dundalk. Battle Monument is one of Baltimore County’s three schools for students with multiple disabilities. The school gave Raymond and five fellow graduates a virtual sendoff, complete with the playing of Pomp and Circumstance, speeches, and congratulations all around.

But leaving school behind is a major change for these students and their families. Federal law ensures they can get services and support in school through age 21. After that, there are no guarantees.

Parents have to grapple with a new reality. They need to both nail down government funding and find an appropriate adult program.

For a variety of reasons, in the best of times, that can take months, according to Battle Monument Principal Jerry Easterly.

“If they require significant behavioral supports, that could entail additional funding or finding a provider that can address the social and emotional needs of the student,” Easterly said.

COVID-19 is making it even more difficult. Day programs currently are shut down. So the new graduates are in limbo: No longer able to go to school, but unable to move forward.

While the public schools also have been closed since mid-March, teachers and therapists still were required to teach and provide services.

Ann Kennedy, the Transition Facilitator for the Baltimore County Public Schools, said some day programs are trying to reach out to their current clients who for now are at home.

“They can share music,” Kennedy said. “They can have cooking classes. They can have yoga. They’re doing all of these things that, even if you are at home, you’re connecting with someone in the community that can do something with you.”

It could be some time before adult programs reopen. Easterly said many of the clients wouldn’t understand social distancing or wearing a face mask.

“And if they require some pretty intensive personal care, that just poses additional challenges,” Easterly said.

With their children at home, parent advocate P.J. Shafer said, parents have lost free time to get things done on their behalf.

“To go look at a program, or do research on a program, or talk to a transition facilitator or talk to social security to get disability,” Shafer said. “Any of those things you would normally do without your child because your child requires additional care, now you are providing that care and you can no longer do that.”

Vanessa Finney said Raymond has a good day program to go to once it reopens. He was supposed to start in July.

For now, she says he’s happy at home.

“He’s a happy, fun-loving child and we love him,” Finney said. “We love him too much.”