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BCPS Struggles To Help Special Ed. Students Who Need Aides

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Baltimore County Public Schools
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Baltimore County schools are being accused of failing special needs students who need their own aides, by not sending assistants into those students’ homes because of COVID-19 fears.

The school system is wrestling with the dilemma of protecting its employees while at the same time making sure those students aren’t left behind in virtual learning.

That has led to complaints from disability advocates that the county is failing to provide those students an appropriate education as required by law.

The aides help students during the school day with things like taking notes, staying focused and controlling their behavior.

Megan Stewart-Sicking’s son Simon is going into third grade at Sparks Elementary School. Simon is autistic and pre-COVID had an aide who helped him with his behavior, manage his anxiety and stay focused.

Sicking said students like Simon who don’t do well when their routines are disrupted need that aide more than ever, now that virtual learning has changed everything.

“We have told them we’re going to do school differently, we’re going to interact with each other differently, we’re usually trying to get these kids off of devices and to learn social skills and how to interact with their peers and now we’re putting them on a device all day to learn,” Sicking said.

In a letter to the Baltimore County Board of Education, Leslie Margolis, a managing attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said the school system remains legally obligated to appropriately educate those students. Margolis said the parent of one of her clients told her that when her child is in school he can’t leave. At home, he can shut down his computer.

“There’s nobody to make him participate in education services,” Margolis said. “The mother can try but then my client, who has pretty significant autism, will attack her.”

Mary Boswell-McComas, the Chief Academic Officer for the Baltimore County Public Schools, said the school system is looking at creative ways to help those students who in the school building have one-on-one aides.

McComas said, “In the virtual context, in the safety conditions, how do we meet the needs with the resources and capacity that we have now?”

Dr. Kathrine Pierandozzi, executive director for special education for the county schools, said for example, an aide can be part of the student’s virtual classroom. The aide can’t talk to the student because that would disrupt the class, but the aide could get the student’s attention by holding up a color-coded card. The card could signal the student that an important question is being asked.

“Or when I hold up that card, that means you’re looking somewhere else, you’re not paying attention,” Pierandozzi said.

Democratic Delegate Michelle Guyton, who represents Northern Baltimore County, said she has been hearing from parents who do not believe virtual aides will work. She said some parents are taking matters into their own hands.

“If they are able to afford to hire out or contract out someone to work with their child one on one, they’re doing that,” Guyton said. “But that’s only growing the gap between the people who are able to afford these services and the people who are not.”

Guyton said special education should be considered an essential service. Both she and Margolis at Disability Rights Maryland believe if the school system is not going to use its assistants to physically be with students who need them, then it should be willing to pay to hire one-on-one aides outside the school system.

But even if the school system was willing to do that, some contractors likely would not be able to provide one-on-one aides for liability reasons.

This is not just a Baltimore County dilemma. Heidi Abdelhady lives in Howard County. She said her 14-year-old son, who is autistic requires an aide.

Abdelhady said she and other parents are now their children’s aides, even though they don’t have the expertise.

“And so it makes me wonder, are we helping or hurting?” Abdelhady asked.

Abdelhady said in the spring, without an aide, her son was given generic busy work and made no progress.

Likewise, it seems unlikely there will be progress in solving the aide issue before virtual learning starts again September 8 in both Howard and Baltimore Counties.

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