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Parents of Special Ed Students Call for Return to School

Sep 24, 2020 06:31PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
One family worries that their distraught special needs child might hurt himself, a member of their family, or their home. One parent has to sit next to their special needs child for the entire school day or else the child will run away from the computer and hide. One parent reports that their special needs child has repeatedly deleted Zoom from his device and locked himself in his room when it's time for a Zoom call.

Parents of high-needs students around the Manhattan Beach Unified School District are calling the lack of in-person services and education a "9-1-1" situation. In fact, it is literally an emergency in some cases, as students with extreme needs are regressing and potentially becoming a  danger to themselves or others.

The issue came to a head on Tuesday night at an emotionally charged Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) meeting with parents and administrators, followed by a stream of public comments at the MBUSD school board meeting on Wednesday night.

"There are families in our district that are falling apart," Carrie Wetsch, a Manhattan Beach parent and member of SEAC (the district's Special Education Advisory Committee), told the school board in public comments on Wednesday night. "I have heard from parents in our district as well as other districts that this situation and constantly having screens put in their faces is literally causing aggression and violence in some children. You have no idea what it is like if you haven't had your own child hitting, kicking and throwing things at you. This is truly survival mode for some families and we as a district, and community, cannot let this continue."

At Wednesday night's board meeting, MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews acknowledged the challenges parents are facing. District officials then presented a "more aggressive" timeline for special needs students to return to school that was faster than a previously proposed timeline.

Matthews said of the pushback he had heard from parents, "It was compelling, it was compassionate, it was emotional...That’s why we have public comments. That’s why we have interactions with parents - to guide us where we’re going right, and where we need to be pushed harder."

Delayed Reopening for Special Needs Students?

Planning for a safe return to school for special needs students is a complicated matter in the COVID-19 era. Students have a wide range of behavioral and physical needs, some of which present a challenge for staff members in a time of social distancing.

Nevertheless, parents are demanding answers as to why the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had allowed schools to reopen for small cohorts of high-needs students as of September 14 - and other local districts have begun serving special needs students in person - but MBUSD has yet to open its doors to those students.

MBUSD officials on Tuesday night had presented a plan that offered only "assessments" of special needs students to take place in October. The plan had preschool and elementary Special Day Class (SDC) and Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) students returning to school in November; Elementary Learning Center (intensive needs) students returning in December; and cohorts of secondary special needs students not returning until January and February. 

On Wednesday night, following the uproar from special needs parents, the board presented a slightly faster timeline. That revised timeline would essentially bring in each of those cohorts one month sooner (October for assessments, preschool, elementary SDC and DHH students; November for Elementary Learning Center (intensive needs); and December and January for the secondary school cohorts). 

Nevertheless, board members expressed dismay and frustration about the timeline. 

"We were given the green light on Sept. 14 - Why are we just in these planning stages?" asked board member Jennifer Fenton. "Every day it’s more regression. It’s frustrating. And from the public comments, it’s heartbreaking."

Board member Bill Fournell wanted more answers as to why other districts were ahead of where Manhattan Beach is, when those other districts are presumably dealing with the same challenges and restrictions. "Why is it that they're so far ahead of where we are? It seems like we've lost ground," he said. "We’re so far behind, given that everyone’s been dealt the same cards."

Matthews said that he expected to receive a report on this week about progress in the Redondo district. "We're all dealt the same set of cards, but we all have different dynamics. We are not the first, that’s for sure, but I'm confident we will not be the last. We feel the push, we know it’s imperative for us, and we want to do it right," he said.

"Saying we’re not the first and we’re not going to be the last is not OK," replied Fenton.

Board member Karen Komatinsky, who was on the steering committee for re-opening schools, agreed that the plans were not going ahead fast enough.

"We have a directive from the governor and the Department of Public Health [to reopen for high needs students]. It's the first time they've agreed on something," said Komatinsky. "We know what the directive is. Let’s get moving on that. For all of you watching. I am personally very sorry. If I could come to your house and help you with your child, I would do that. We need to step it up and do it quickly."

The district's steering committee that is charged with figuring out the timeline and logistics for re-opening schools has not met since August. District officials noted that when it became clear that the school year would begin in all distance learning, the focus turned to making sure that all of the distance learning issues were addressed first. 

In the meantime, the steering committee is expected to reconvene again soon. Board Chair Jennifer Cochran also noted that the district has many resources at its fingertips, including many parents who would be willing to volunteer to help expedite the process, particularly for tangible jobs such as moving furniture. 

The school board has a board workshop scheduled for next week on equity, diversity, social justice and inclusion. The topic of special education students' return to school is expected to come up again at that meeting.

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