Meriden schools scrutinized over mask policy for special ed students

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This article was published on by Michael Gagne on February 12, 2021.

MERIDEN — For Max Kish and his family, the more than two months he was unable to attend kindergarten in-person proved a harrowing experience. 

The five-year-old is blind and diagnosed with autism. He is non-verbal and has severe mental disabilities, explained his mother Bobbie Kish. 

Max had been attending in-person kindergarten at Hanover School until Nov. 13, a few days after district officials notified families that any student who has a mask exemption — whether for medical reasons or because of a disability — would be switched over to remote learning immediately. 

Max was one of 13 students with disabilities who had been barred from in-person classes due to their inability to wear a mask. Three other families interviewed described similarly difficult experiences with their children disengaging from remote learning and having behavioral outbursts, which included, at times, acts of self-harm.

Special education advocates interviewed for this story have raised questions about the appropriateness of the children’s exclusion from in-person learning, especially if they were not able to access services they are supposed to receive under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control had updated its guidance for school operations which include a recommendation for universal mask wearing. The latest guidelines still defer to local officials to “make individualized determinations as required by Federal disability laws in order to determine if an exception to the mask requirement is necessary and appropriate for a particular student. If a child with a disability cannot wear a mask, maintain physical distance, or adhere to other public health requirements, the student is still entitled to an appropriate education, which in some circumstances may need to be provided virtually.” 

District officials cited education privacy laws in declining to discuss individual cases. Officials said they stand by that previous decision to place all students who had been unable to wear masks into remote settings. Still they acknowledged the difficulties faced by students and families during that switch, while noting most of those students have now returned to some form of in-person instruction. Officials described an intention to work with families on a case-by-case basis to establish plans for remediation and compensatory services.

“The Meriden Public Schools is aware that remote learning during this pandemic for certain children with significant disabilities has been a huge challenge for the affected families,” School Superintendent Mark Benigni said in an emailed statement to the Record-Journal. “In accordance with our legal obligations, we always consider the educational needs of the children we serve on an individual basis.  As we go forward, we will be considering whether and how the pandemic has affected the educational needs of children, and we will be addressing those needs through the PPT process on an individual basis.”

Behavioral issues escalate

For Max, wearing a mask in-school was not going to happen. 

The Hartford Courant first reported the Kish family’s dilemma earlier this month. By the time the Courant’s story was published, Max had rejoined his peers in person. He did not have to wear a mask. 

Another student, four-year-old Gerry Goslin, who attends Hanover’s preschool autism program, was starting to get routines down pat before his family was told he would need to be switched to remote learning.

“He seemed to be really excited about school,” said Christina Goslin, Gerry’s mother. 

Gerry Goslin has difficulty with sensory issues, his mother explained. He doesn’t like to wear anything on his feet. But when he was in school he had to wear shoes and was getting used to them. He had also adjusted to the routines of wearing a backpack and holding hands and walking with his mother. 

While Gerry had to suddenly begin attending class remotely, his sister Samantha, got to go to school in-person, amplifying the family’s difficulties. 

During remote learning, the sensory issues escalated. He grew restless, would climb furniture and chew on things constantly.

“That got 10 times worse when he had to stay home,” Christina Goslin said, and she worried he had regressed in the gains he had made tackling life and social skills when he had attended in-person. 

Sitting in front of a computer all day to participate in remote learning is also difficult for Gerry. 

It was difficult for Max Kish as well. 

“The issue is he regresses too badly when he’s not in school,” Bobbie Kish said of her son. Max joined his classmates and teacher during their first few Zoom sessions. After that, it grew difficult to get Max to participate in those sessions. 

“He was screaming. He would go into the bathroom. He would go hide out in there. He started being violent toward himself,” Bobbie Kish said. 

Bobbie Kish said she and her husband repeatedly communicated their concerns about Max’s behavior to his school. After one incident, they were surprised to learn from a caseworker for the Department of Children and Families that a school employee had reported them as a suspected neglect case.

Kish said she and her husband felt “sideswiped” by having been reported. The DCF caseworker who responded to the call determined that referral was unfounded and worked with the family, she said.

“The caseworker we had, she was pretty amazing. She was on our side the whole time. She said, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t understand why you guys got a phone call,’” Kish said.

‘Deeply concerned’

Luckily, Bobbie Kish’s husband works from home. So providing childcare wasn’t an issue for their family. Still their son’s behavioral problems worsened. The family reached out to the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) to intervene. 

Sarah Eagan, the child advocate, confirmed in an email more than a week ago she would be meeting with district leaders and attorneys. Eagan declined to comment on a specific case. 

“But I think it’s fair to say that OCA has been involved both on an individual case and systemic level,” Egan wrote. “We have made continuous inquiries throughout the pandemic with the State Department of Education and other stakeholders, including working with CHRO (the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities) to ensure that school districts have adequate guidance on what state and federal laws require with regard to supporting the needs of children with disabilities and complex medical conditions,” Eagan wrote.

“The Office of the Child Advocate is deeply concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children with disabilities and their family, particularly low income and high need children,” Eagan wrote. “These children and their families have faced the loss of essential services, sometimes for months on end, both community and Home Based Services, as well as in some cases, school. They face a higher level of isolation and a substantial risk of despair due to the crises that this lack of help and support creates.”

Eagan continued, stating her office had advocated along with other state officials “to continue to pay special attention to our most vulnerable students, and ensure these students have meaningful access to an education, whether remote or in person.”

Special education advocates say the federal and state guidance around providing students services is clear: their responsibility for providing those services did not go away because of the pandemic. 

Julie Swanson, a special education advocate, said the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the education of many students with disabilities.

“All disabilities are different, but it’s especially disproportionate for many students on the autism spectrum and children with other developmental disabilities,” Swanson said. 

How local school districts have interpreted state and federal guidance in providing students with the education appropriate to their needs has varied, Swanson and other advocates said.

Beth Reel, co-executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said having the world shift “so dramatically in such a short period of time” has produced what she called a blanket trauma, in particular for special needs students. She said conversations between families and those who provide special education need to be happening now. 

“We can’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal’,” she said. “Who knows when that will be? We need to be asking what can be done now for kids who have missed out, within the context of the challenges posed by the pandemic.”

Attorney Andrew Feinstein, a founder of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK-CT), said decisions like discontinuing in-person learning for students with mask exemptions are “thoroughly inappropriate”. 

“The state’s guidance says if the IEP cannot be delivered in-person the way it was then it’s obligatory to talk about how the IEP can be delivered in another way,” Feinstein said. “That process, delivering the plan, has to be done in consultation with the family. Let’s work out a means of doing so.”

‘Not able to function’

The mother of one child, nine-year-old Zachary Jeffcoat, feels she wasn’t consulted about her son’s placement throughout the pandemic. 

Jona Jeffcoat said her son has been in remote learning since last March. It wasn’t the family’s choice. 

Zachary had been diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and suspected apraxia of speech, his mother explained. Zachary’s behavior plan says to limit computer use, as it’s known to cause aggressive behavior. 

Prior to the shutdown of in-person learning last spring, Zachary’s behavior plan was finally working. He was in a mainstream classroom with regular education peers, whose behavior he could emulate. Zachary was making progress in several areas, including speech, his mother said. He was able to do other tasks like make purchases at the local grocery store. They baked in their kitchen. 

Jona Jeffcoat said her son hadn’t had a behavior incident since preschool. But that quickly changed last March. His ability to self-regulate declined rapidly. He gets frustrated more easily. 

“He has gotten incredibly aggressive,” she said. That has led to continuous destructive behavior, including punching walls and self-injury. Some incidents prompted 2-1-1 and 911 crisis calls.

Jeffcoat said her son’s pediatrician signed a mask exemption form for him prior to the start of this school year. However, she said district and health officials declined to grant him that mask exemption. So, unlike other students who were switched over to remote learning, Zachary began the school year in that setting and remains there. 

Because Zachary is unable to wear a mask, the family is unable to go anywhere, Jona Jeffcoat said. 

“He’s not able to function,” she said, expressing a desire for her son to return full time to an in-person setting. “He’s not getting his education.”

Declining case rate, vaccine rollout

As of last Monday, the city’s rate for new COVID-19 cases stood at 65.9 cases per 100,000 residents. That case rate exceeded rates in the state’s largest cities: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury. Compared to three months ago, the rate of new cases has declined. 

Last November, case rates were quickly escalating. By the third week of November, the city’s COVID-19 case rate had climbed to 74.9 cases per 100,000 residents. Weeks earlier, the city’s then climbing case rate had pushed it into the state Department of Public Health’s “red alert” category, after having had lower case rates during the weeks and months prior. 

Last Nov. 9, district officials sent a letter to families through the Parentsquare school notification app that no one would be allowed in school buildings without a mask. 

“If your child is currently attending in-person schooling pursuant to a medically-based or other mask exemption, District staff will contact you directly to address remote programming for your child. Any existing exemptions to the mask requirement, along with any pending or future requests for exemption as an accommodation pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) or Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), will be reviewed and/or re-reviewed by the Meriden Department of Health and Human Services,” wrote Michael Grove, assistant superintendent and COVID-19 liaison for the Meriden Public Schools.  “In the interim, during this critical red alert period, any MPS student who is unable to wear a mask while in the school building will be provided with remote learning opportunities.”

Benigni, the school superintendent, defended the local officials’ decision to not grant mask exemptions this past fall. He acknowledged state Department of Education guidelines that urged local officials to allow mask exemptions based on students’ health and special education needs. But he noted, those guidelines were not a binding decree.

“The state left each district to make their own decisions,” Benigni said. “We leaned heavily on our local health experts. They did a tremendous job. The fact we were able to offer in-person learning, with the pandemic going on, is a testament to the work that they did.

“They were in our buildings. They were working with our staff. They were working with our classrooms, to determine what mitigation opportunities could be put in place,” Benigni said. 

He added, “I’m going to place health first. And our health department was clear that they did not want anyone in our building who couldn’t wear a mask, while COVID positivity rates were high and going up.” 

Declining case rates and the slow rollout of vaccines have helped conditions improve enough to allow students with mask exemptions back in buildings, Benigni explained.

Last March, federal guidance to local school districts stated that during school closures those districts would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during those closures. However, once school resumed, districts “must make every effort to provide special education and related services to the child” according to their individualized plans. The local personnel responsible for overseeing the delivery of those services would be “required to make an individualized determination as to whether compensatory services are needed under applicable standards and requirements,” those guidelines stated.

Tom Mooney, an attorney at Shipman and Goodwin who chairs the firm’s school law practice, has long provided legal counsel for the Meriden Board of Education. He said district officials plan to hold meetings with families to discuss the impacts to their children and the appropriate remediation moving forward. 

“The school district recognizes that these children were set back, that the pandemic and the limitations and their handling in the school system for a period of time was counterproductive,” Mooney said. “Whether or not there was regression and to the extent there was regression that is determined on an individual basis.”

Mooney added, “school districts throughout Connecticut and throughout the country are struggling to know how best to address that….. But whether and how we can provide supplemental services to children who were denied what they had hoped for, without laying fault. It was just not possible to give them the in-person instruction that was anticipated before the pandemic.” 

Not enough school

Michaela Sweeney, 10, is back at Israel Putnam Elementary School, after having been fully remote since mid-November. But Michaela only attends three hours a day, explained her mother, Sarah Sweeney. It’s not enough. 

“She’s not able to learn,” Sarah Sweeney said. “I absolutely want her back full time. I’m not really sure what the point is of sending her for three hours a day… She still has no set routine. My daughter thrives off of routine and being in person.”

Michaela has multiple needs. She’s deaf in one ear, legally blind and not able to communicate verbally. She requires feeding through a gastrostomy tube. In addition to receiving occupational and physical therapy, Michaela had also been learning to communicate by sign language. 

Sarah Sweeney said her daughter was doing well prior to the pandemic and prior to the latest switch to remote learning. Communication, then, was the main issue. 

“She was doing well, it definitely put her in a nice routine, her behavioral problems were less,” Sarah Sweeney said. “Despite her disability, she is a social person. She loves being around new people. That helped her with communication.”

Last November, Michaela Sweeney’s family received what her mother described as “maybe a week’s notice” of the switch to remote learning. 

“They did give us a schedule of how her remote learning would go. I kept in contact with her speech therapist and her sign language therapist,” Sarah Sweeney said. As for Michaela’s regular classes, her mother opted not to participate because she knew her daughter would have difficulty staying focused. 

Sarah Sweeney had to use Family Medical Leave Act time in order to be home. Her husband has also been out of work. Sarah Sweeney said more recent meetings with district leaders to discuss her daughter’s individualized education plan have not gotten very far.