In the News
NH schools get much-needed fiscal support for remote special education
By Hadley Barndollar
Seacoast school districts are getting a share of the $1 million in special education grants announced by the state Department of Education this week – a redirection of funds to support perhaps the most challenging aspect of remote learning.
DOE is diverting $1 million in unspent federal fiscal year 2018 discretionary funds, which were planned to be used for professional development this spring, said Rebecca Fredette, state director of special education.
"But after speaking to districts across the state, we found that support for remote instruction was a far more pressing priority for special education," she said.
Grant amounts are based on student enrollment within a school district, with the smallest districts receiving $3,000 and the largest $25,000.
"While New Hampshire has excelled in this transition to remote instruction, supporting our special education students has been our most difficult challenge," Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a statement. "It is vital that we continue to meet these students' needs."
Under current law, the grants must be spent by Sept. 30, but DOE is seeking an extension from the federal Department of Education. Funds may be used for activities including purchase of technology for the support of remote learning, payment for services provided to students while remote learning, and fees for software or programming related to special education.
School officials say special education thrives off a physical connection with students, and teachers have had to navigate individual education plans, known widely as IEPs, in a remote environment. The worry now is these students will fall behind their peers in both academics and development as a result of the at-home learning model.
School buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year as a result of the coronavirus. Some districts announced an earlier end to schooling than expected, citing the burden of remote learning on many of their families.
"When we looked at remote learning, some families have fallen into a very good routine with it, but for other families, it has created an extra burden and extra stress," Dover Superintendent William Harbron previously said. "By ending school for students on June 5, we saw that as a way to lift the stress on those families."
In 2017, the National Center for Learning Disabilities issued a "state snapshot" of New Hampshire, showing that during the 2015-2016 school year, approximately 15% of public school students received special education.
Identified in 2015-2016 with specific learning disabilities – a category of special education – in New Hampshire were 9,437 children.
Special education includes a wide range of diagnoses and designations, such as autism, developmental delays, hearing or speech/language impairments, intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and children with ADHD, among others.
Interviewed earlier this month, Portsmouth mother Traci Cobbett was worried about her 8-year-old daughter, Anna Ellery, a second-grader at Dondero Elementary School. Anna has severe ADHD, a learning disability and an IEP. She has been doing her schooling from a small laptop in their living room.
"She is already behind, and I'm afraid she's going to fall further behind," Cobbett said.
The idea of special education executed at home with the necessary supports suddenly seems insurmountable. The situation is more challenging for single-parent, low-income families.
SAU 52 – the Portsmouth school district – will receive $10,000 of the $1 million released by DOE.
Special education needs for students with disabilities age 3 to 21 are supported across SAU 52 by 49 professionals and 88 paraprofessionals.
Between the city's elementary schools, middle school, high school and Robert J. Lister Academy, there are 343 students currently receiving special education.
"These funds will be helpful to really try to put in some additional supports for students," said Superintendent Stephen Zadravec. "We know that many of our special ed services have had to adapt. It's definitely a different kind of environment and many of our services focus in on that person-to-person model."
On the forefront of school officials' minds is the varying places students will be in when they return physically to school, and how staff will have to address those equity and achievement gaps.
"We're looking at additional tools we might find useful online or otherwise, and we're also making plans for when we do return to school, what are those other things we need to consider when students reenter the buildings," Zadravec said. "We have the summer, where it's certainly not clear at the moment as to whether or not we could bring kids together physically for some support programs, or whether we could continue to do that remotely. These funds might be helpful to us in thinking about those supports, as well."
Zadravec said "hats off" to all teachers, case managers and paraprofessionals who have pivoted to delivering special education in a remote environment, "doing everything they can to still keep close contact with students and still give them the services they need."
"When we have a moment, all of us are just sort of thinking about, 'Wow, how is this going to change us going forward?' he said. "We may learn some things about what's really successful with students, too, during this period."
Kate Callahan, principal at Dondero Elementary School, identified both difficulties and "celebrations" in the deployment of remote special education. For positives, she said family involvement in the learning process has increased – they're gaining insight into what IEPs look like in action.
Special educators have also been able to adapt quickly and find alternative ways to replicate the multi-sensory work they do in a classroom setting, she said.
Difficulties Callahan cited include equity as a No. 1 issue – equity in resources, time, family support, technology, internet sources, availability as a result of family dynamics and ability to establish routines.
Other factors include what to do when learners and families are not engaging, and the balance of typical classroom learning and special education at home.
Jeanette Souther, director of pupil support and instruction for the Portsmouth School Department, said special education staff have done an "excellent job."
"For some students with attentional concerns, working remotely without the routines and structures previously established in a school setting was an initial challenge," Souther said. "Problem solving with the families around the individual needs has led to solutions such as finding the best times of day to connect or adjusting the scheduled learning sessions to shorter, more frequent contacts."
Souther said some students with disabilities are better suited to be instructed with physical contact, such as occupational and physical therapy. Staff continue to support these needs remotely, as well, she said.
The Dover School District will receive the greatest allocation of special education grants in the Seacoast at $20,000.
Other Seacoast school districts will receive: Exeter Regional Cooperative ($10,000), Exeter ($10,000), Oyster River ($10,000), Rochester ($15,000), Somersworth ($8,000), Hampton ($7,000), Winnacunnet Cooperative ($6,000), Seabrook ($5,000).