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State instructs Boston, Worcester, and Springfield to open classrooms for special education students

Massachusetts education officials are intervening in an increasingly tense debate between parents of students with disabilities and school leaders in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, ordering officials in those cities to reopen classrooms as quickly as possible.

State officials instructed local leaders to provide comprehensive information on whether students with disabilities are accessing education in their homes on a daily basis. If the responses are unsatisfactory, the state will audit the district’s learning plans to determine whether officials are doing enough to meet their legal obligations to serve those students.

“For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for providing in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote last Monday in letters to the districts, giving them 10 days to respond. The state publicly released the letters on Friday.

Students with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by the school closures that began nearly nine months ago at the start of the pandemic. Parents have shared heart-wrenching stories of children suffering devastating regressions that could take a year or longer to recover from because school officials have refused to provide required services. Growing research is identifying similar losses.

Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — the state’s three largest school systems — collectively serve about 22,000 students with disabilities, but it’s doubtful that all those students would return. Some students with special needs are finding success with remote learning, while others are worried about potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Boston currently is providing in-person learning for fewer than 200 students at four schools, representing less than 1 percent of its more than 51,000 students. Springfield and Worcester are not educating any students in person, according to the state. Boston school officials, however, would not make any commitments Friday on when they will open more schools….

…Boston is already facing pressure from Greater Boston Legal Services to reopen classrooms. The organization sent a letter to school officials last month on behalf of a dozen clients detailing enormous learning losses and deteriorating mental health affecting students over the past nine months.

Elizabeth McIntyre, a senior attorney with the organization, said she appreciated Riley’s desire to help students, but said his efforts fell short, particularly in providing districts with the support and resources they need to open schools. Ultimately, both the state and districts are failing to meet their legal obligations to students with disabilities and are needlessly creating long-lasting harm. Her group is now contemplating next steps.

“There is a group of kids with complex disabilities who just can’t access school through a computer, and they are not getting” a free and appropriate public education, she said. “It’s disgraceful.” …Read more in The Boston Globe.