Anne Arundel County's school system will take over occupational and physical therapy services for disabled students from the Health Department, amid a shortage of therapists that has left dozens without care required by federal law, County Executive John R. Leopold announced yesterday.
"I firmly believe that quality programs for children are most effective when educational systems are responsible for delivering education services," he said.
Leopold said he decided to transfer the $4 million program based on the success of a similar transition -- the Infants and Toddlers Program from the Office for Children, Youth, and Families to the Maryland State Department of Education -- he sponsored while in the State House. Leopold, a five-term delegate, took office last month.
Local governments are federally mandated to supply some occupational and physical therapy to special education students. But 63 of Anne Arundel's 1,900 students who qualify haven't gotten treatment this school year.
In Maryland, therapy programs in all but Anne Arundel and Frederick counties are administered by local school systems.
Frances B. Phillips, the county's health officer, said she was "very pleased" that Leopold elected to relocate the program.
"It's an educational program," Philips said. "There's a philosophical reason it makes sense, but there's also a very sound fiscal reason that it will be more efficient if it is operated by the school system."
She also said the change would mean more competitive wages for therapists, which will significantly improve recruiting efforts. The Health Department offered hourly wages without benefits.
Mary Tillar, director of the school system's special education program, said merging therapy services and special education will strengthen both.
"We truly believe that these services are an integrative part of programming for students for disabilities," Tillar said. "They are absolutely critical for the educational benefit of the students."
Tillar said that the school system was assessing the program, specifically "looking at what we need to do to enhance retention and recruitment -- and benefits -- that would ensure that we don't have a shortage in the future."
At least 10 therapists' positions were open at the start of the school year, Phillips said. The department has since hired five temporary occupational therapists and three temporary physical therapists.
The program, which began in the late 1970s before the federal mandate, evaluates students to determine their needs and delivers therapy services based on the evaluation. All the evaluations have been completed for this year, but the department could not render all of the therapy because of its depleted staff, Phillips said. The temporary workers are chipping away at the backlog, Phillips said.
"We're almost caught up. We do think we'll catch up entirely, with the complement of therapists from temp agencies," Phillips said.
Transfer of the $4 million program in Anne Arundel County will uproot 68 Health Department staff -- about 60 of whom are therapists -- and place them under the school system's Special Education Program.
A timeline for the transition has not been set, but Leopold said it was expected to be complete this school year.
Tillar said that the school system was prepared to help during the transition.
"We will absolutely ensure that these 63 students, or any child that was affected by the [overtime/part-time] shortage this year, is provided their ongoing and missed services," Tillar said.