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Reentry of special needs students in Baltimore County won’t work | READER COMMENTARY

In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020, photo, Willy Edwards, with his mother Nelson Edwards, are seen at their home in Spartanburg, S.C. Special education students are dealing with the challenges of learning from home. (Tim Kimzey/Spartanburg Herald-Journal via AP)
In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020, photo, Willy Edwards, with his mother Nelson Edwards, are seen at their home in Spartanburg, S.C. Special education students are dealing with the challenges of learning from home. (Tim Kimzey/Spartanburg Herald-Journal via AP) (TIM KIMZEY/AP)

I am a Baltimore County teacher, and I work at one of the four separate day schools that the superintendent would like to reopen in November (“Schools reopening: Here’s how Maryland jurisdictions are handling the academic school year amid the coronavirus pandemic,” Sept. 24). When most people hear public day school, they assume my students are kids with autism or Down syndrome, but our population is so much more diverse than most people realize. Let me take you through a typical day at a special school.

Every student needs to be escorted from the bus to the classroom or cafeteria by a staff member, some because of behavior concerns, some in wheelchairs or specialized equipment that requires one-on-one adult supervision. Many students are escorted directly to our health suite where four nurses and one nursing assistant oversee the medical needs of approximately 130 students ages 3 to 21. Let me repeat that: five medical staff for 130 kids. If a student doesn’t visit the nurse, their day starts with breakfast and toileting. We are part of Baltimore County Public Schools, and our staff feed, toilet, change diapers and change clothes of our students.

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During the school day, there are behavior emergencies, students running out of the building, kids in crisis biting and hitting and spitting. Staff members endure physical attacks from frustrated nonverbal children trying to communicate. We watch our kids go in and out of hospitals for serious health problems, many stemming from compromised immune systems. One of the hardest parts of the job at a separate day school is the realization that many of our students will not live to see their 30th birthday and, occasionally, mourning the loss of a student. Yet the incredible caregivers at our school love students like family, treat kids with kindness and respect despite the difficulty in working with children who can often become physical out of stress. Our staff members are selfless: They put themselves in high risk situations; they endure the physical demand of lifting students and the mental stress of working in a difficult place is a heavy burden.

Now these students and staff are being asked to return to school in person in November, to so-called “pilot schools” that are the first wave of a reentry plan by Superintendent Darryl Williams. This is the second draft of the plan; the first draft was protested county-wide by families and staff. Once it was clear that reentry across the system was unsafe, the second plan was to use separate day schools to “pilot” the program and families of medically-fragile kids and students with underlying health problems are being treated like guinea pigs. We work with kids and families who already worry about staying safe from disease, and now they’re being asked to return to an incredibly risky environment.

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People who cannot physically put on and remove their own masks are medically exempt from wearing them, which is most of our school. All our students have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and many of these legal documents require hands-on staff interaction. There is no social distancing in a school like ours. A socially distanced day at a special school is a day when the building is empty.

In addition, all special schools have adult assistants, a job description that puts staff on the front lines of the most difficult parts of the job (toileting, behavior, witnessing and documenting medical emergencies). We have trouble finding people to fill these positions because they make a disgustingly low $11 per hour with no health benefits. To ask these incredible people to return to such a high-risk environment, knowing that they do not have long term health care, is despicable. The reentry plan is asking students and staff to risk their lives so BCPS can pilot a return to schools.

Baltimore County’s reentry plan cannot happen. For our students and families, this is a life or death situation. Our students deserve better. Our staff deserves better.

Kelly Asliyalfani, Towson

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