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Harford school officials address learning plans for special needs students; virtual town hall scheduled for Aug. 19

Several Harford County Board of Education members, as well as some parents, shared their concerns this week about how services will be delivered to Harford County Public Schools students with special needs, under plans approved for all-virtual learning and limited space in Learning Support Centers in the coming school year.

School system officials are still working out multiple details of the overall plan, which the school board approved Monday with an 8-1 vote.

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Board member Tamera Rush, who voted against the HCPS administration’s plan, noted that “my largest concern tends to be around the IEPs,” referring to the Individualized Education Program plans prepared for each student with special needs.

The school board is trying to meet the needs of more than 38,000 students, member Patrice Ricciardi said, as school system leaders prepare for next year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Ricciardi also echoed Rush’s concern for how best to serve students with special needs.

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“My concern is really with the special needs kids and the IEPs, and how are we going to address their issues,” she said.

The board heard about 60 comments from the public Monday, many of which came from parents and students speaking against virtual classes, citing concern about the impact on students’ mental health while learning at home, isolated from teachers and their peers.

Several parents, as well as staff members who work with students with special needs, expressed concern about supporting those students, especially students with physical, emotional or mental needs that are best served in a face-to-face setting.

“There’s a lot of angst and anxiety out there,” board member Sonja Karwacki said. She’s been hearing concerns from parents whose children receive services from STRIVE centers set up for students with autism, she noted.

Parents will have an opportunity to ask questions of special education department representatives during an online town hall next Wednesday, Aug. 19.

The event, which can be viewed via Microsoft Teams, runs from 6 to 7 p.m.; people can link to the town hall through the HCPS website.

This spring, case managers in the HCPS Department of Special Education contacted the families of more than 5,100 students who receive special education services through an IEP. They did so in order to develop an “individual distance learning plan” so each student could receive instruction and any services they needed while classes were being held virtually, Michael Thatcher, special education director, said.

The school system is shifting back to IEPs from distance learning plans for the coming school year, which begins Sept. 8.

Case managers are again reaching out to families during the summer to help craft IEPs for students going into the next school year, programs that might need “necessary amendments” to fit the virtual classes, Thatcher said.

“Those will be decisions that are made with the parents, with the case managers, the folks who know the students the best, together,” he said.

The director said his office has received many questions regarding special education services, and the Special Education Citizen Advisory Committee also provided a list of questions recently.

Thatcher announced next week’s town hall meeting while answering questions from Karwacki about special-needs students and their IEPs. He and his staff can field submitted questions during the event, as well as other questions asked live.

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The director cited the challenge of answering questions during the board meeting “with a broad brush, because our students are all served by individualized education programs.” Staff members such as coordinators, who are closer to the day-to-day work with students and families, could provide more information during the town hall, Thatcher noted.

“I know that there will be a lot of parents who will appreciate that opportunity,” Karwacki said of the town hall.

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