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Carroll County special education teachers concerned about risks associated with in-person learning

County Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, posed a question to Nick Shockney, director of special education for Carroll County Public Schools, during the Dec. 2 board of education meeting.

“You’re still satisfied that it’s safe for everyone involved in those programs?” Frazier asked, referring to special education programs that have continued with in-person learning in small groups amid the recent spike of COVID-19 cases.

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Shockney responded that it has been the board’s direction to continue special education programs in person. Frazier asked the question again.

“I’ll be frank, I don’t know if it’s for me to answer,” Shockney said.

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Frazier, who serves as an ex officio member of the school board, said he had spoken with staff within special education programs who do not feel safe working closely with students who need hands-on help and struggle to wear a mask.

Two teachers, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said there should be no in-person special education learning because of the risk it poses to students and teachers alike.

One special education teacher said she is not able to social distance while working. Her students require help with using the restroom, for example, and some cannot wear a mask.

“So, it’s been scary,” she said. “What would be desirable is to wait until the numbers weren’t so high to actually be in-person.”

She said personnel in other school programs are on a rotating schedule but special education teachers have to be there four days a week.

While school officials were not available Wednesday to comment about these concerns, Superintendent Steve Lockard said at the Dec. 2 meeting they are trying to make it as safe as possible and programs are shut down when cases escalate.

Shockney said having in-person services comes with risks but staff are working hard to ensure students get what they need.

After Shockney and Frazier’s exchange at last week’s meeting, Board President Donna Sivigny sent Frazier’s question to Lockard.

“You basically said we’ve been following all of the protocol, we’ve implemented all the risk mitigation procedures when there is an issue, you’re taking the appropriate measures,” she said.

Lockard agreed. He added he would never guarantee schools are safe all the time, even prior to the pandemic, but “we’re making them as safe as we can.”

Another teacher, with more than 10 years of special education experience, says the county is not able to meet the students’ mandated educational needs during the pandemic despite in-person instruction. She said it’s been “a nightmare.”

“My question is, why are they in school?” she asked. “The students aren’t able to get the services they need but the teachers are being held responsible for not being in compliance. And it’s like they’re sweeping it under the rug.”

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Approximately 750 students continued learning in CCPS buildings after the school system voted Nov. 18 to suspend hybrid learning and return to virtual. Some services based on a student’s Individualized Education Plan are best met through in-person learning and parents have voiced the need for students be inside the classroom.

Teresa McCulloh, president of Carroll County’s Education Association, said the union only wants teachers and students back in the building when it is safe.

She said the special education program is not “one mold that fits all.” Some programs are operating safely and smoothly, but there’s reason to believe others are not “because many of these children and these programs cannot social distance or wear the proper PPE.”

It leads to greater risk of students and educators and that’s what leads to concerns, McCulloh said.

“One concern of ours through this whole pandemic has been mixed messages,” she said, adding that school buildings do not all deliver the same message. “At times, it may have to do with safety protocols.”

“Bottom line, safety should be the first priority for all, anyone in the building,” she said.

CCPS was tracking COVID-19 cases and symptoms within the school system for a couple weeks in November. Lockard said they stopped tracking them through the dashboard once most students learned virtually.

The school system had its second coronavirus outbreak at Hampstead Elementary where four staff members and one student tested positive, Carey Gaddis, spokesperson for the public schools, said last week.

Maggie Kunz, health planner for the health department, said last week a few other schools have “clusters” of cases but are not sites of outbreaks. She said there are few cases in schools because most students are learning virtually.

Lockard said in an interview after Wednesday’s board of education meeting the health department supports CCPS having small group instruction and noted the state superintendent called for bringing small groups of students back into the buildings.

“We are tremendously and sincerely grateful and appreciative for the work of our special educators and those who are working in-person with our students with significant needs,” he said later. “We cannot thank them enough for the important work they are doing.”

Shockney said in an interview Tuesday that in-person learning for special education students has been a challenge. There are times when social distancing cannot be maintained and not every single need for students is being met. But with every decision he asks, “do the benefits outweigh, ultimately, the effects?”

Shockney said he’s heard a lot from staff and said they care for students “tremendously” and noted their hard work.

“It’s not easy for our staff, for our families, for our kids,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best that we can within our current environment.”

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