For students with disabilities, it’s important that needed services be provided as early as possible. But schools and state officials acknowledge that low wages and teacher shortages have left many families waiting for those services, with the pandemic only making the problem worse.
Vanessa Pepin says that since her son, Nathan, was a baby, her family has had to fight to get him the services he needs. When he started showing speech delays at 15 months old, Pepin worked with the state agency Child Development Services to get him support.
At two and a half, she says, he was diagnosed with autism. And not long after, Pepin says, he got into a special purpose preschool program based at a school near their home in Standish.
“So, maybe like a week after he turned three, he got the chance to go straight to school. Which we’re told, that doesn’t happen at all, pretty much,” she says.
But Nathan’s classroom closed when schools across the state shut down early last year. And while most school buildings reopened last fall, Pepin says her son’s program never did. The family had hoped to secure a spot at another nearby program. But by September, they found themselves on a waitlist.
Months later, she says, they’re still waiting. Pepin worries what the months of lost interaction and socialization will mean for her son.
“It’s heartbreaking. Because every time I see him put a little progress in, I keep wondering how much better he could be doing at school,” she says. “He needs a social setting, to really have that precious social interaction that’s so important at this age.”
Michelle Hathaway, director of the Auburn-based Margaret Murphy Centers for Children, says that for years, inadequate reimbursement rates and low compensation have made it close to impossible for special purpose private schools across the state to find enough teachers. The pandemic has only made it harder.
“When we can’t pay staff little more than minimum wage, we’re not going to attract and retain the best of the best in this field,” Hathaway says.
State officials say that health and safety precautions have reduced the number of children who can be in a space at any given time. Last month, the operators of one special purpose private school, the Scarborough-based Morrison Center, announced that staff shortages had forced them to shut down a preschool classroom at their campus in Wells.
Hathaway says that at last count, close to three dozen young students were waiting for her organization’s services, and some could potentially be waiting for years.
“And I think we’ve reached a point, across the state, where we recognize that we just can’t do it,” Hathaway says. “And if we don’t see positive traction, I would not be surprised if many more early intervention programs close.”
Ben Jones, a staff attorney with Disability Rights Maine, says the organization filed a systemic complaint last month with the state over reports of wait lists for obligated services from the state Child Development Services’ York County office.
“It’s glaringly clear from their own assessment, and then these individual cases, that there’s kids not receiving the services that they have a right to receive and need, especially early intervention,” Jones says. “These are young kids, these are three-year-olds, four-year-olds, five-year-olds, that are needing the services more than ever — when they’re young. And they have such a big impact. So it’s no small thing for them to be missing out.”
A Maine Department of Education spokesperson says Child Development Services has been engaging in “active and creative recruiting efforts” and has been expanding partnerships to increase capacity and address student needs. The state Legislature has also established a commission to independently review Maine’s early childhood special education services.
But in the meantime, some families continue to wait for access to programs. In Standish, Pepin says her son Nathan is now on six different waitlists for preschools, and she fears that he may not enter a classroom again until next fall.