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Schools reevaluate special-ed and summer plans

HARLEM VALLEY — Recognizing that a student’s academic development continues well beyond the classroom and beyond the academic year, school districts throughout the state and the region have taken action over the last few months to ensure students will continue to receive a quality education, regardless of the shift to remote learning. When the coronavirus outbreak forced New York schools to shut down this past March, school districts took the necessary measures to offer distance learning to its students, with guidance from the governor. Now that this year’s summer school and special education programs have also been moved online to deal with the health crisis, school districts — and students — will have to adjust to the changes.

On Thursday, May 21, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the 2020 summer school semester will be conducted remotely in order to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. As written on his website, www.governor.ny.gov, Cuomo announced that, in addition to developing a plan for summer school, school districts must develop a plan for students with disabilities “who participate in extended summer school year programs over the summer to ensure they receive instruction.”

Drawing from his own experience as the parent of a child with autism, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro sent a letter to Cuomo on Friday, May 22, emphasizing the importance of offering services to special education students throughout the summer and making sure the needs of students and their families are carefully considered. Fully aware that the most daunting challenge for students with disabilities is “overcoming the stress of change and inconsistency,” Molinaro underlined the value of creating a careful and student-centric approach in moving forward with addressing these needs. 

“Throughout this process so many of our schools and teachers have gone above and beyond to provide quality education during these difficult times,” he stated.

While he observed that many students with special needs have adapted well to “the new paradigm of remote learning” and the various online platforms entailed, Molinaro also mentioned that there are students who are struggling from the absence of face-to-face interaction with teachers and specialists. Above all, he stressed that special-ed services must be available to special education students throughout the summer to both support their growth and help their families bridge the gap until schools can provide a more conventional educational environment once more.

“The unique circumstances, needs and challenges of special needs students and their parents/guardians, as well as educators and specialists, must be considered,” Molinaro wrote. “I know this is a difficult and complex task to set a path forward that addresses the health, safety and educational needs of all students… Having been engaged in issues related to the provision of quality special education services for years, I am willing to help in any way.”

Following Cuomo’s announcement regarding this year’s summer school programs, Harlem Valley school districts have been examining their summer school programs and informing their families about the anticipated changes as set forth by the governor.

In a letter sent out to families living in the Pine Plains Central School District on Thursday, June 11, Pine Plains Superintendent of Schools Martin Handler reported that its summer school program and special education Extended Year Program will be held online this year. While he made note of Cuomo’s Executive Order to allow summer school for special needs students with a 12-month program to be in-person, he shared the district’s current plan to have the program remain online, citing on a later date that the “time before the program starts is not adequate to do the necessary planning to keep our students and staff safe and healthy.

“As you can imagine, there are a number of problems with changing these programs to in-person,” Handler wrote in his letter to district families, “most notably the very short amount of time before they are scheduled to begin. In addition, there are some concerns about placing these youngsters in the position of being the first to return to classes in the school buildings. For those reasons, we have made the decision to have our direct instruction for these special needs students remain online.”

Regarding plans for the North East (Webutuck) Central School District’s summer school program for special education students, Webutuck Superintendent of Schools Raymond Castellani explained the program will likely remain online for the time being.

“We are still dealing with unprecedented times where we have to balance the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff with their academic needs,” he said, “which we know would be best met in person, and we’re trying to find the balance that allows some contact with our teachers and students that we can continue to help progress.”

After reviewing the parameters with the school district’s stakeholders, Webutuck Director of Student Services/Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Eraca said the district felt the virtual option for summer school was the best option for its students. At this time, she reported that the district is doing an inventory of families interested in its ESY program. Looking ahead, Eraca said some of the program’s lessons will be live while other lessons will be asynchronous, which will allow for more flexibility. She added that since the student-teacher ratio will be low due to the number of participating students, there will be a greater level of concentration on making sure students succeed.

When asked whether she is concerned about the quality of special education dropping as a result of remote learning, Eraca replied, “I’m concerned about everybody with remote learning. For some, it’s a great modality; for others, it’s not.”

As far as how teachers are contending with the shift to remote learning, she said, “They’ve done a phenomenal job with adaptability. We were in a great position from the get-go because of our one-to-one initiative, so our staff are very familiar with utilizing the technology and we fared much better than our neighboring school districts.”

Despite repeated phone calls placed and emails sent to school district personnel with the Millbrook Central School District, no one in the administration replied to questions posed by The Millerton News regarding its plans for summer school and special education programs this summer before press time to contribute to this article.

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