Special education challenges difficult to surmount

Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent, presented the results of a survey conducted for parents and guardians of children with special needs at an online Board of Education meeting last month.

Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent, presented the results of a survey conducted for parents and guardians of children with special needs at an online Board of Education meeting last month.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — Despite many mammoth challenges in trying to meet the various needs of its students — in particular those special needs students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) — the district appears to be earning fair grades in this time of COVID-19.

Yet big questions will remain in place for some time as to whether legal obligations to fulfill a range of student IEPs will have been satisfied during the pandemic, and whether or not the state will cut districts some slack in terms of satisfying their obligations.

“The nature of the condition of many of these children is they’re not independent learners,” explained Anne Munkenbeck, a Wilton-based special education advocate.

“They need specialized instruction and that’s what special education is — it’s specialized instruction,” she said.

Consequently, the video interaction that constitutes distance learning — or e-learning — is simply not suited for every student. Some have sensory, physical and emotional needs that necessitate in-person interaction in order for learning to take place.

“They’re very specialized,” Munkenbeck said of IEPs, which are legally binding documents revised annually by the schools in contract with the parents.

“For some populations of students … they quite often need a person interacting with them one on one — a physical person in the room with them … so that’s difficult,” she said.

This, in turn, presents challenges for parents, who are not necessarily trained to serve as a in-person instructor for their child, or able to adequately facilitate their child’s interaction with a virtual instructor. Munkenbeck said some parents have expressed frustration with the district’s failure to provide adequate guidance in how they can help serve this need.

Some parents, also, have had the colossal added challenge of having to balance their employment commitments as well. While some have been able to hire outside professional help, others have not.

“It’s difficult for them to be interacting one on one anyway,” Munkenbeck said of some students, and attempts for them to engage through videoconferencing presents new challenges.

“They’re not able to learn this way, so they either are not getting on or are in a session for a short amount of time, and sometimes throwing tantrums and leaving sessions,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Wilton School District, led in this area by Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for student services, has done what it can to meet specialized instruction needs since the shutdown.

“Our staff is working very, very hard to meet every family where they are,” she said. “For some families this is working well, and for some families this is extremely challenging.”

Overall, she said, parents have been going above and beyond to help facilitate their own students’ needs in a spirit of collaboration, and generally have tried to work closely with teachers and school officials to help augment their children’s learning.

Likewise, she praised teachers for their creativity in trying to implement ways to reach students and cater to their needs.

The district invested some $100,000 this spring in a new e-learning program called Presence Learning, which provides a variety of technical tools that help various special area teachers with services.

“It really adds a tremendous boost to what we may have been able to do otherwise,” Leonardi said, as the platform contains “a library of materials” that can be brought into play with instruction, as well as more elaborate interaction opportunities.

“It’s very similar to when they’re sitting at a table with students,” she said, making services like speech pathology and many facets of occupational therapy, for instance, easier to perform virtually for the instructor.

While most parents were reticent to share their experiences, even on the condition of anonymity, one Wilton mother offered high praise for the district.

“Even though there’s a plan in place, they’ve been very amenable and open to making the changes to make it work,” she said, “for which I’m incredibly grateful.”

“It’s not ideal,” she said. “I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, but it is impressive with the circumstances.”

She acknowledged that in her family’s case the situation is probably not as challenging in a virtual environment as it might be for others.

“Our needs are less demanding than some students,” she said, allowing for adaptability. “It’s not a one-on-one hands-on need by any stretch.”

“I do feel overall the parents that I am in communication with are pleased,” she said.

“We are trying very, very hard to see that kids continue to grow and develop in this environment, but the impact won’t be known until this starts to resolve itself,” Leonardi said.

Meanwhile last month the Board of Education set aside more than $500,000 for unknown potential costs relating to special education services, including an expectation that there will be significant legal costs incurred.

Leonardi told the board that when disputes arise relating to service provisions, decisions are ultimately made in the courts. And while the district is focused on guidelines and requirements as they’re handed down from the state, things are constantly in flux, including what the district will ultimately be responsible for.

“That will have to be determined in the future,” Munkenbeck said.