WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Krista Valles signed her son Parker up for special education at the Warwick Early Learning Center as soon as he turned three.
He found success there coping with his autism, Valles says, including dealing with sensory issues that would lead to meltdowns. But like all Rhode Island kids, Parker’s school went virtual in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Now we’re back to complete meltdown central,” Valles said in a Zoom interview from her home. “We’re already regressing.”
Speech and occupational therapies — guaranteed in Parker’s individualized education plan, or IEP — have not been going well, Valles said. While Parker can tolerate about 15 minutes on video chat with his teacher for speech therapy, the occupational therapy has been left for Valles to do with Parker herself, when she’s not working as the general manager of a local Burger King.
“I don’t get how to do the occupational therapy at home,” she said. “I appreciate the videos, it’s just not working.”
So when Valles got an email earlier this month that Parker’s Extended School Year (ESY) program — meant to prevent regression over the break — would remain virtual this summer, she was upset.
“Summer camps are opening with the idea that they’re going to stay in the same groups every day,” Valles said, referring to the plan for in-person camps to start on June 29 with kids staying in groups of 15 or fewer. “Well that’s how the school works, he’s in the same class with the same eight kids every day.”
Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton did not respond to an email seeking comment about the decision to stay virtual.
“Only when safe, are we encouraging it to be in person,” R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in an interview Thursday. “There are places that are just not going to be able to do it.”
Infante-Green said school districts were told to submit their summer learning plans to the R.I. Department of Education by Thursday, and whether in-person ESY programs can happen will depend on if safety protocols and PPE can be put in place in time for the programs to start.
“I know that will be challenging because there’s going to be one district that will be able to do one thing, and another district that will be doing distance learning,” Infante-Green acknowledged. “Everybody will get instruction.”
At least 16 school districts have decided to go fully virtual all summer rather than waiting for the state’s decision, their superintendents told Target 12: Barrington, Burrillville, Chariho, Cumberland, Coventry, East Providence, Exeter-West Greenwich, Jamestown, Johnston, North Kingstown, North Providence, Pawtucket, Scituate, Smithfield, West Warwick and Woonsocket.
Providence, the largest district in the state, has not made a decision yet on whether to have virtual or in-person programs this summer, according to spokesperson Laura Hart. Only one district that responded to Target 12’s inquiry — Lincoln — said they were looking into in-person learning at the end of the summer.
“We may … MAY do some in person in August for a few weeks but only if it safe for our kids,” Superintendent Lawrence Filippelli wrote in an email. “We are hesitant to expose our most fragile students if things haven’t turned around by then.”
That medical fragility of many special needs students was a major factor in deciding to stay virtual, according to multiple superintendents.
“ESY serves our most fragile students and it is with these students in mind that that we have made this difficult decision, a decision that was not made lightly,” said Kathryn Crowley, the superintendent of East Providence schools. “We appreciate this is not easy for families, and we applaud their participation and efforts to support our students and teachers through these uncharted waters.”
Crowley added that unlike summer camps, ESY programs would not be able to operate primarily outdoors.
Other districts said they simply aren’t ready; North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger said the district doesn’t have enough “PPE, guidance about transportation and building conditions, training of staff, etc. to offer in person services safely.”
That preparation is a challenge that districts — and state officials — will need to figure out by fall, when the goal is to have at least some in person school, though it’s not a foregone conclusion.
“We are planning for different scenarios,” Infante-Green said, including the possibility of bringing back certain student populations before others. She said the state is forming four or five scenarios, including hybrid models that include some classroom and some virtual learning.
“We have to be ready for all of it,” she said. The plan will also include a statewide academic calendar, with the same school days, vacations, holidays and professional development days across all districts.
She said there will need to be some sort of evaluation of learning loss and gaps, so that students can catch up and be made whole with services in their IEPs that were not fully followed.
“This has been a struggle for certain populations,” Infante-Green said. “It’s day by day, that’s the reality of where we are.”
Valles said her son’s teachers are doing their best, but she believes his IEP is not being followed, and she fears the long-term effects from a spring and summer without those services to which he’s entitled.
“My goal was really to see him be in a regular kindergarten class,” Valles said. “And is losing this time going to effect that?”