As Baltimore County schools prep for a virtual return, parents of special education students wonder if they’ll be left further behind

Christel Deskins

Emily Mullinix, a mother of two, worried that her 11-year-old daughter would have a tough time at Arbutus Middle School. Having a student who relies on in-person communication with a speech language pathologist, Mullinix is worried how her daughter’s relationship with the specialist will translate online. For most students the […]

Emily Mullinix, a mother of two, worried that her 11-year-old daughter would have a tough time at Arbutus Middle School.

Having a student who relies on in-person communication with a speech language pathologist, Mullinix is worried how her daughter’s relationship with the specialist will translate online.

For most students the start of middle school brings about a variety of new experiences — new classes, new peers, new teachers. For Mullinix’s daughter, it also brings the possibility of a new Individualized Education Program (IEP), a customized instructional plan with specialized services for students who have a disability.

Mullinix’s daughter and 9-year-old son are two of roughly 16,000 students, or 14% of Baltimore County Public Schools’ population, who rely on IEPs to succeed..

Parents of students with IEPs say the sudden shift to remote learning in March amid state orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus disrupted more than just their kids’ learning experience; for many, it resulted in the loss of specialized services that may not be able to be delivered virtually, services parents say are crucial for their child’s well-being and cognitive development.

“Special-education students in particular are at a great disadvantage” during remote learning, said Megan Stewart-Sicking, chair of the school system’s Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee.

And the challenges students with IEPs face during virtual learning in a world still reckoning with a pandemic are easier to identify than the solutions, Stewart-Sicking said.

Still, “there must be a better plan in place this fall for all therapies to be provided directly to students,” she said.

The Maryland State Department of Education has issued guidance to local school systems, instructing those school systems to implement IEPs to the fullest extent possible during distance learning.

That means developing an Individualized Education Program adjusted to fit a virtual environment, said Kathrine Pierandozzi, the new executive director of specialized education for county schools.

What that looks like in practice will vary based on the special-education resources at a particular school and on the goals set out by a student’s IEP team, she said.

As such, Pierandozzi could not provide a broad overview of what special education will look like for students with IEPs in the fall semester, but echoed other school officials who say the fall semester will be vastly different from the spring.

Although parents said they empathized with teachers’ predicament in the spring, school officials said all educators, including para-educators, who work alongside general education teachers to assist students with special needs, were given adequate training to teach virtually one week prior to when remote learning was rolled out.

Even so, Mary Boswell-McComas, chief academic officer for Baltimore County Public Schools, said educators came out of the spring semester with a better sense of how to interact with families.

“Emphasizing how we communicate to families to ensure them their children’s needs are being addressed, I think that that will alleviate a lot of [issues],” Pierandozzi said.

Some para-educators, however, didn’t participate in remote teaching, since the school system does not provide them with electronic devices, and cannot mandate them to teach on personal devices.

But absent specialists, that support may continue to fall to parents heading into the fall semester. And during the spring, many parents said they lost nearly all the specialized services that were once provided, that Pierandozzi said would be unsafe to perform in person. She did not rule out the possibility that those services will be offered virtually in the fall.

Dayana Bergman, the mother of three boys in IEPs, said the transition to online learning affected each of them differently.

Her eldest son, Angelo, who is 16, has dyslexia and is visually impaired, had trouble reading his assignments that did not come in large print. Her second son, Aven, who is 12, works with an occupational therapist, which she said is hard to do virtually, and her youngest son, Ashton, who is 10, has ADHD and had a hard time getting into a routine while doing online learning.

She said she hopes they receive what they need to succeed.

“Hopefully, [the schools] will provide them with a healthy routine of structured learning and something close to accessible instruction with an enrichment opportunity for learning,” she said.

The Baltimore County Board of Education “has only approved our decision to go virtual. More details about virtual instruction will be released and the fall will be different from the spring in many ways,” schools spokesman Brandon Oland said in an email.

IEPs in the fall semester will be amended with parental input regarding direct services, Oland said.

Stewart-Sicking’s 8-year-old son was no longer able to work with his team of specialists, including his speech pathologist, occupational therapist, one-to-one aide during instructional time or his behavioral interventionist.

Mullinix’s son lost his speech pathologist and has “not received speech lessons since he left school,” she said.

Molly Hall’s eldest son, a 12-year-old with dyslexia and learning disabilities, no longer received one-on-one help from teaching aides at Middle River Middle School.

Stewart-Sicking said her son’s specialists did offer to help her step into the roles they could no longer fill, “but I didn’t need help,” she said, “I needed them to do it.”

“I’m not a trained behavioral interventionist, I’m not a trained speech therapist. As much as they would offer to help me to do things, it was too much,” the Hereford resident said.

Hall, a White Marsh resident, said her son’s teachers, too, made efforts to be helpful when she proposed to them a one-on-one instructional plan for her son Brice.

“Unless you ask for it, I’m not sure that everybody was kind of offered that” option, Hall said.

Still, Hall said, there needs to be flexibility for students with IEPs in the spring, including their schedule and workload.

For parents with students who have IEPs, the key to surviving virtual learning will be communication, said Taya Dunn Johnson, vice president of the Autism Society of Baltimore Chesapeake, a nonprofit that provides support to autistic individuals and their families in the greater Baltimore area.

Parents should “absolutely reach out to contacts at school to begin the conversation” about what their children’s plans will look like, Johnson said.

Ellen Callegary, a Baltimore-based attorney who specializes in disability law and special education, advised parents to broach the initial conversation with their child’s IEP team “forcefully,” and to ask which elements of their child’s IEP cannot be implemented remotely, and why.

“I think for many children with disabilities, it’s going to throw a wrench in their learning,” Callegary said.

Still, she said, “I think more things are possible. I think people just need to be creative and thoughtful and open and not defensive about this.” That hinges on collaboration between parents and educators, she said.

Despite its challenges, Mullinix said she agrees with the county’s decision to continue online learning in the fall.

“I feel that it is the only decision that they can make,” she said. “Nothing right now is ideal and nothing is going to work well for everybody, but I think that keeping everyone safe and healthy is the most important thing they can do.”

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