Dear Decaturish – CSD district leadership fails students in special education classroomsCity Schools of Decatur Administrative Offices. Photo by Dena Mellick
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Something profound occurred at the August City Schools of Decatur Board of Education (BOE) meeting. Amongst the angst expressed over the postponement of fall sports, our Superintendent publicly stated that a subset of our students will not receive an education this fall. Dr. Dude stated, “We do want to get our highest need Special Education students back in the school because it is very hard if not impossible to deliver some of those services virtually,”. Merriam Webster defines impossible as “incapable of being or of occurring.” After this startling admission, not one single BOE member spoke up to express concern. This revelation is not news to many parents of Special Education students, it is merely an acknowledgment of the reality we have been living since mid-March.
There is a cohort of students who are simply unable to be served by distance learning regardless of the effort put forth by teachers and support staff. Many of these students have a significant cognitive impairment, visual or auditory impairment, speech and communication delays, or a sundry of other significant disabilities which make distance education impossible.
Our “team science,” who Dr. Dude is relying on for advice on reopening, appears to be relying on data and statistics relevant to general education classrooms. What they fail to recognize is the significantly different makeup of a Special Education classroom and the unique challenges these students face. Many of these students receive services one-on-one and/or in small group settings, often composed of 5 or fewer students. At the September BOE meeting, board members continued to express support for learning in small groups in the context of learning pods and even stated that CSD has reached out to the YMCA directly for help in setting up pods for students in need. Board members continue to support the idea that four-to-six students in a pod is an acceptable number. Absent brief statements by School Board members James Herndon and Heather Tell, no BOE member spoke of their concern for students in Special Education classrooms. Not one member questioned Dr. Dude on why learning in small groups is safe for some students but is prohibited for others. Our BOE has abdicated complete responsibility for decision making to the Superintendent without sufficient questioning and oversight.
While Special Education students continue to be ignored, there was no lack of excitement around the prospect of restarting extracurricular activities. A new proposal process is being implemented which will enable administrators to apply for approval of specific in-person activities such as football, cross country, and in-person psychological testing. One of these activities does not match the others. The same process would be required to proceed with in-person psychological evaluations as would be required to resume football. This speaks volumes to the priorities of our school board and current district leadership.
We now find ourselves in month seven of the public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and our Special Education department has yet to survey parents on their thoughts and concerns. An informal surveying of these families has reportedly begun but our family among others has yet to be contacted. What is needed is a consistent and total survey of Special Education students, parents, and teachers with results broken down by classroom environment and grade level. District-wide surveys cannot accurately capture the wishes and needs of Special Education families and should not be used to make decisions about Special Education classes.
Special Education students in need of in-person services should have the option of attending in-person school in their typical small group and/or one on one settings. Parents who are not comfortable with in-person services could continue to have their children receive services in the virtual environment. One way to accommodate both situations would be to have some students switch classes and/or schools if necessary so that the entire class would be learning the same environment. With such a small district this is a very workable plan, but does require some initiative and outside the box thinking, both of which appear to be lacking in current district leaders. Decatur touts itself as a progressive and innovative school district but the lack of options for Special Education classrooms would indicate otherwise.
A society is judged by its treatment of its most vulnerable citizens and to this point in time the City Schools of Decatur would not be judged favorably. If you believe in person learning is safe in small groups please reach out to your school board members and express your thoughts. These children cannot afford to be held back further by a complacent leadership team.
– Robert Bibb, CSD parent
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