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Social Distancing A Concern For Teachers, Especially In Special Education

The state issued guidelines this week outlining how schools can reopen, prioritizing earlier in-person instruction options for students with disabilities. (Photo: Crixell Matthews, VPM)
The state issued guidelines this week outlining how schools can reopen, prioritizing earlier in-person instruction options for students with disabilities. (Photo: Crixell Matthews, VPM)

The state’s guidelines for reopening schools apply to private day schools, specialized schools for Virginia students with disabilities, as well as public schools. The guidelines allow in-person instruction for these students during phase one and two.

“We have significant concerns that many of our students with disabilities were not able to access all of their services during the closure,” said James Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction. “And so, by opening up the flexibility for in-person service immediately, it allows our special education day programs to operate. It allows parents to receive compensatory services, if that's appropriate. And it allows our students to move forward on their IEPs in a broader sense.”

Richmond is entering phase two this Friday, June 12, which gives private day schools the option to submit plans for reopening immediately.  These schools still could have submitted plans for reopening under phase one, but “strict social distancing” measures outlined under the first phase will be loosened under phase two. While students and staff are still required to stay six feet apart, there’s no longer a limit on the number of people per classroom under the state’s second phase guidelines.

Just because schools can reopen, doesn’t mean they have to. The guidance states that “virtual instruction may remain appropriate for certain students who may be challenged with adherence to the strict social distancing and safety guidelines as determined by the IEP team and the parents' consent.”

“Obviously, we want parents at the epicenter of these decisions, the parent has to agree that it's safe for them to come in,” Lane said in an interview with VPM. “And so we encourage IEP teams to get together to think about exactly what needs to be done to ensure instruction continues for students. And that doesn't mean that every student with a disability must have in-person instruction. But it does mean that every school division should be having conversations with their special education families, to see what the best way to move forward is.”

Some aren’t ready to resume in-person instruction. A group of Faison Center employees called on leadership to postpone a previously-scheduled June 15th reopening of most programs to at least September 1st. The Faison Center is a private day school in Richmond serving primarily students with autism. 

“Faison’s plan to reopen so soon means we cannot protect our students or ourselves,” the letter reads. “Our jobs necessitate close contact between students and staff, despite local and national guidelines. We all want to go back to work. We miss our clients and our teams. But we work with a sensitive and vulnerable population. What worked in a world before COVID-19 is not feasible or safe for students and staff alike in the middle of the pandemic.”

In addition, the group is asking that students and staff with high-risk health conditions, like compromised immune systems, asthma and diabetes, be permitted to learn and work remotely until December 2020. If someone on the Faison premises tests positive for COVID-19, staff want leadership to alert them immediately.

They’re also asking for the school to cover costs for staff to get tested for COVID-19, and provide “abundant access to PPE for both students and staff,” since direct contact between staff and students is often unavoidable. Staff are often responsible for escorting students to the bathroom, among other things. The group is also asking for the following: “a minimum of 10 pairs of properly-sized disposable gloves per person, per shift. Sterile masks distributed onsite as often as needed. A minimum of one pair of safety goggles per staff.” 

None of the group members, going by the name of Second Staff, were willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation. Sam West, communications officer for the local union Richmond Industrial Workers of the World, couldn’t say how many workers are in the group now, but that there are “multiple workers from every major area of the school” and that “the campaign has also enjoyed a lot of growth since going public recently.”

A Facebook post on the group’s page from May 29th, a few days after they sent their list of demands to Faison leadership, acknowledges that some concessions were offered. However the group alleges that many of their demands were not addressed, like specifics about PPE and accommodations for immune-compromised staff, West said. 

“For the first time, the reopen date of June 15 was deemed unlikely,” the Facebook post reads. “The administration also created a committee of teachers, teaching assistants, and other staff to review reopening plans. We feel the administration would not have taken these actions without pressure from us.”

Faison CEO Brian McCann said in a statement to VPM that “since the beginning of this crisis in March, we have and will continue to provide accurate and timely information to all staff in all programs updating them on safety planning and procedures.”

McCann said they’re working with statewide and national workgroups to figure out how to safely reopen, and have formed a review team comprised of parents, teachers, teaching assistants, health experts, and others to ensure input from multiple perspectives is represented. 

“This is not just a Faison issue,” McCann said. “This is an issue affecting thousands of special education schools across the country and thousands of staff working at those schools and thousands upon thousands of students with special needs.” 

Ta-Neha Smith’s 17-year-old daughter Jaidyn attends Faison. Smith has concerns about how social distancing will work, and isn’t sure if she’s ready to send her daughter back to school anytime soon. She’s worried about Jaidyn wearing a face mask for long periods of time, and possibly eating it too.

“I'm on the fence, I’m undecided. I’m really thinking that September will be a better time for her to return to school, but I'm weighing my options,” Smith said, adding that the classrooms aren't very spacious. "So that is puzzling how they are going to manage social distancing.”

The latest she’s heard is that Faison is aiming for an end-of-June opening. McCann did not specify a timeline for reopening to VPM, saying that there is “no confirmed date for when in-person services will resume on campus for our students.” 

McCann said Faison reopened their early education center May 4th at the request of parents. McCann said he’s heard from other parents who would like to reopen other programs sooner rather than later. 

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Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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