Many NY students with special needs still can't get in-person education, despite Cuomo order

Kristin Thorne Image
Friday, June 19, 2020
Many kids with special needs still can't get in-person education
Kristin Thorne reports on children with special needs who still lack access to desperately needed in-person education

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Eyewitness News has found that despite New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's June 5 executive order allowing in-person special education this summer, many school districts, non-profits and preschools throughout New York are not offering the programs or are only offering in-person services on a rotational basis.

Jacqui Saunders, of Nesconset, has three children with special needs. Her home school district, the Smithtown School District, said beginning July 20, special education programs will transition from virtual learning to an alternating in-person and remote learning schedule.

"It's just not good enough," Saunders said. "They're supposed to be going every day."

In a letter to parents, Mona Tobin, the Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel Services for the school district, said, "Our foremost concern is the health and safety of our students and staff."

Those with The New Interdisciplinary School in Yaphank informed families this week they will not be offering any in-person services this summer.

"When you have a child with special needs, the education to continue throughout the year is so important because there is such regression of steps," said Kevin Anthony, whose 4-year-old son Colin attends The New Interdisciplinary School.

Anthony said he believes his son has fallen so far behind in his therapy from not receiving in-person services throughout the past few months that he will have to continue special education for another year.

Colin had been preparing to matriculate into a typical classroom before schools shut down.

The Executive Director of The New Interdisciplinary School, Jay Silverstein, said in a letter to parents that school officials are unable to offer in-person services this summer because the school had not received clear guidance from state agencies on how to operate in a safe way.

"We have not received any further guidance from the State Education Department," he wrote. "We cannot make an independent decision to reopen lacking clear guidance from these agencies; to do so would risk our license, funding and future operational capacity."

The New Interdisciplinary School is part of a large coalition of New York special education preschools that issued a letter Thursday saying it would not be offering programs this summer due to a number of factors, including not having a sufficient amount of time to train staff, prepare educational plans and develop compliance policies.

The preschools also said they did not feel comfortable opening because busing would not be provided by the counties within which the schools are located.

"This would mean that if we were to open, only those families with the means (cars, available funds to hire transportation) would be able to attend," the letter said. "This would be blatantly biased towards lower SES (social economic status) families."

Developmental Disabilities Institute (DDI), based in Smithtown, provides special education programs for 78 school districts across Long Island and New York City. John Lessard, the organization's executive director, said DDI is working to offer some in-person services this summer.

"We're caught in that unpleasant situation of expectations having been raised in the minds of families having to deliver a service without necessarily all of the guidance that we as providers need," he said.

Lessard said DDI has not received any guidance from the New York State Department of Education, which is one factor preventing DDI from offering a full in-person summer program.

"We're moving ahead anyway," he said. "It's a little bit of a leap of faith in our part."

Dad Vinnie Saunders said he is frustrated by DDI's response. His youngest child, Ronin, attends DDI.

"I don't understand how someone who runs a school for a living, who's now told they can open up their school, and says how do I get guidance?" Saunders said.

Jacqui and Vinnie Saunders are demanding Governor Cuomo deem special education essential in order to force schools to operate in-person summer programs.

"We feel like he kind of threw us a life vest and put us in the middle of the ocean," Jacqui Saunders said of the governor's executive order.

Last week, a reporter pressed Governor Cuomo during one of his daily media briefings about the fact that some school districts and non-profits were not offering in-person summer programs per his executive order. His top aide, Melissa DeRosa, answered the question.

"We greenlighted them going forward for summer school in-person because we understand the real challenges of doing distance learning for special needs children," she said. "And we hope that the localities get it together to be able to make it happen.

Under the governor's executive order, families need to request in-person summer instruction through their home school district. The school district then decides if it is able to offer the instruction.

On Long Island, the Massapequa, Hauppauge and Merrick school districts are proceeding with full in-person summer special education services.

"Why is it based upon where I live?" Jacqui Saunders said. "Why should we have to move to get better services?"


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