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Educating Carroll County’s special education students a challenge amid coronavirus pandemic

Melissa McClellan, of Taneytown, moved to Carroll County from Baltimore County in search of a better school for her daughter, who has autism. She says she now she regrets her decision.

McClellan said children with special needs and individualized education plans (IEPs), “need to be in schools.”

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Many parents of students who require special education have said their children are not adapting well to schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. Carroll County Public Schools' special education director said the school system is doing the best it can.

Special education poses a particular challenge because by nature of some of the disabilities, many of the same students who aren’t able to get much out of virtual learning are unable to wear masks and need more up-close attention from teachers, making the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission greater.

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The schools have also struggled with adapting as cases have been spiking over the past three weeks. CCPS temporarily closed the Learning for Independence (LFI) programs, which offers a certification of completion to many students with complex medical needs, at Robert Moton Elementary School, where an outbreak occurred, Winfield Elementary School, Liberty High School and Mount Airy Middle School. But all are now open.

McClellan said she pulled her 13-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, out of Baltimore County Schools because she was not receiving the assistance she needed.

Cheyenne McClellan, 13, and her mother, Melissa McClellan, moved to Carroll County this year for better schools but are struggling to adapt to hybrid and virtual learning at CCPS
Cheyenne McClellan, 13, and her mother, Melissa McClellan, moved to Carroll County this year for better schools but are struggling to adapt to hybrid and virtual learning at CCPS

They sold their home, moved to Carroll in mid-August and enrolled in CCPS. But Cheyenne started to fail a couple of her classes during virtual learning, whereas she used to be an A-student, her mother said.

In addition to autism, McClellan said her daughter has selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that could prevent someone from speaking, as well as a chromosome disorder.

“Now she has no socialization, no interaction,” she said. “It’s bad.”

She said despite the outbreak and closures of special education programs, she would still want Cheyenne to attend in-person four days a week.

“I just worry as I’m high risk, but [at the] same time, my older kids and husband is working so we already have the risk of getting [coronavirus] in our home,” she said.

Nicholas Shockney, director of the CCPS special education program, said adapting to learning during the pandemic has been a challenge, but staff has worked “tremendously hard” and deserves to be commended.

He said they took a strategic incremental approach when returning students to buildings.

The Learning for Independence Program with 75 students opened Sept. 8. On Sept. 14, in-person learning for students in the autism program, BELLS Program (Preschool Autism Program), BEST Program, Carroll Springs School, Post-Secondary Program and PREP Program (for 3- and 4-year-old students) — about 169 students altogether.

And the hybrid model started Oct. 19 for all elementary and middle school students. About two-thirds of the 3,000 students with disabilities and services participated.

The hybrid model opened to all high school students Nov. 12. And on the same day, the LFI Program at Carroll Springs School, students who utilize Braille and students who utilize a Sign Language Interpreter expanded to four days a week for 25 students.

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But the challenge is to have manageable-sized groups and staffing, Shockney said. Some staff members are working remotely or are on leave.

He said the best thing families can do is to reach out to their schools and IEP teams who are available for them. He added that a fair number of students will probably need recovery compensatory services when schools get back to normal.

The Board of Education is expected to decide Wednesday night whether to suspend hybrid learning and go completely virtual, beginning Thursday. With Carroll County’s positivity rate over 5% and its number of cases per 100,000 residents well over 15, state guidelines call for “limited or no in-person learning.”

Shockney said he does not yet know what that would mean for special education students.

Jodi DeMay, of Mount Airy, also said she and her family had some struggles with her two special education students.

Her youngest child has epilepsy and combined type ADHD. Her sixth-grader, Aubrey, a student at Mount Airy Middle, also has combined type ADHD as well as generalized anxiety, sensory process disorder and Chairi malformation.

DeMay said during the spring, special education students were given work they could not complete and the school system was “just throwing papers at everybody.”

Now Aubrey struggles with the back and forth of hybrid learning and has meltdowns when dealing with the new model.

Aubrey DeMay, who was 8 at the time, and her mother Jodi sit in a park near their Mt. Airy home.
Aubrey DeMay, who was 8 at the time, and her mother Jodi sit in a park near their Mt. Airy home. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

“By Thursday and Friday, she’s just exhausted and it’s heartbreaking because, as a mother, I want to see my child succeeding,” DeMay said.

She said her daughter is struggling socially and intellectually, and they had to hire a tutor.

DeMay said she and her ex-husband have some concerns about COVID-19 in schools, but they have to get back to their lives since COVID-19 will be around for a long time.

She initially requested the school board to open schools a little more to the special education children. But after the closures of the LFI programs, she said she would prefer to keep her daughter in hybrid learning. If cases escalated, she said they would move her back to virtual learning until the spread calms down.

Gail Montgomery, of Eldersburg, works at Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. She said she sees how COVID-19 affects people and some of its misconceptions.

“I don’t want my children to get COVID-19 and get a shorter lifespan,” she said. “We don’t know the long-term effects.”

She said her seventh-grader, Wesley, who has ADHD and struggles with speech, has an IEP and “a small laundry list of diagnoses.” She elected to keep him learning virtually.

Wesley Montgomery, a seventh-grader, does his schoolwork from home in Eldersburg .
Wesley Montgomery, a seventh-grader, does his schoolwork from home in Eldersburg . (Handout)

During the spring, or what she called “crisis schooling,” Montgomery had her son transition from an IEP to an ICLP, or individualized continuity of learning plan.

She said there “wasn’t the sense of urgency to make sure children are learning” during that time. And she noted a time when Wesley received speech therapy via email.

“There were so many things that were not OK with that situation,” she said.

During the summer, Montgomery said she noticed “the writing on the wall” and figured schools wouldn’t be back to normal until a vaccine was available. So she requested an IEP meeting on the first day of school.

“It cannot be what it was in the spring,” she recalled. “This was an entire year. And it needs to be better.”

Montgomery said her expectations were modified and she saw improvements. Her son meets with a speech pathologist and works on his articulation goals. He also participates in a weekly “lunch bunch” that allows for social time. She said she knows staff are doing their best and tries to give grace during this time.

She said the posted recorded lessons have been “an amazing situation” and helpful for the doctor’s appointments that keep him from attending class. Her one suggestion was to offer an independent study option for classes like physical education.

“I would rather him ride his bike for half an hour instead of doing jumping jacks for 30 minutes in front of a screen,” she said.

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Montgomery said she is grateful for the option to remain virtual and recognized that her situation is different from other parents with children in special education. But would prefer parents not make blanket statements calling for all students to be in or out of schools.

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“As leery as I am of sending my kid in the classroom, I don’t think no kid should go back,” she said.

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