HARTFORD, CT — Guidance issued by the state Department of Education was not what approximately 850 parents of children in special education wanted to hear: it means each of them will have to fight for educational services they probably have not been receiving for the past three months as schools moved to distance learning during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state guidance issued to local school districts Friday says parents of special education students who have reached the age of 21 will have to ask their local school district for additional services.
The only expectation of local districts is that they have a Planning and Placement Teams meeting with the parents.
“If outstanding services/activities exist, the CSDE expects the district to convene a PPT to discuss whether such services/activities are necessary to facilitate the student’s movement from school to adult services or other planned post-school activities and whether it is appropriate for such services/activities to take place after June 30, 2020,” the guidance states.
If parents don’t like the results of that PPT they may contest the determination under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Bryan Klimkiewicz, director of the Bureau of Special Education for the Education Department, said he understands the urgency this population of students faces. Some may be transitioning to adult services through other state agencies, like the Department of Development Services, Bureau of Rehabilitation Services or the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind, but not all.
He said the agency can’t extend this group of students additional classroom time without a change in legislation or an executive order.
“We can’t require school districts to do something they’re not mandated to do,” Klimkiewicz said last week. “However, individual determinations can be made through the PPT process.”
Distance learning for the special education population was essentially non-existent during the past three months, according to advocates.
Parents like Lisa Gentile said her son Barry misses school. The lack of social interaction has increased his anxiety, caused depression and likely a regression of skills.
Barry turned 21 in March, which means the last services he receives will be on June 30. Unless Gentile can convince her local school board that he deserves educational services beyond June 30, he could lose his job — the one thing that’s given him purpose.
Barry works at Walmart with the help of a support person provided by his school, Benhaven in Wallingford.
It’s likely that he will transition over to services provided by the Department of Development Services, but that transition is far from seamless.
“I don’t know what we would have done if it wasn’t for Walmart,” Gentile said.
She said she doesn’t believe she’s alone in her desire to extend services a few additional months.
“I could never think of anyone who wouldn’t want services extended,” Gentile said.
Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, said she’s not happy with the guidance either.
“I am really disappointed that they would do this to our kids who have suffered so much,” Abercrombie said. “These kids still won’t have services ready for them on July 1. They’re not getting face-to-face services now.”
Essentially they’ve lost a whole semester of school and “my fear is these kids are going to be sitting home playing video games,” she added.
Abercrombie said the Department of Education has the obligation to give everyone an education.
“They have to find a way for kids with special needs to get an education,” Abercrombie said.
She said she worries about what will happen to these kids over the next six months.
Andrew Feinstein, a board member of SEEK of CT, said the state Department of Education is playing a “cruel trick on local school boards,” because the guidance is going to cause litigation.
“There’s no doubt that when there’s a challenge, the parents are going to prevail,” Feinstein said.
He said there was no service provided to these students after school closures in March.
Feinstein said “the opportunity to close the gap for students with disabilities is often squandered as school administrators mistakenly believe that Extended School Year Services is only for the maintenance of already-learned skills.”
Just because the schools districts were unable to provide services doesn’t mean the students gave up their rights to those services and an equitable education, Feinstein said.
“We realize that COVID-19 has exposed gaps in access to learning,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said last week.
He said they are “more committed than ever to equalize access for our students.”
State education officials previously issued guidance for special education students who are not aging out. .
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story made a mistake in describing the services that Barry Gentile received. Gentile has been receiving services from Benhaven even though he was no longer able to attend school. Benhaven continued to provide support services to Gentile, which allowed him to keep his job at Walmart.