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Safely Back to School: Parents of children with special needs grapple with back to school decisions

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Posted at 12:02 AM, Jul 29, 2020

Safely Back to School is a new initiative from RTV6 to help empower parents, students and educators to make decisions based on facts to safely return to the classroom. Click here for more stories and resources.

INDIANAPOLIS — Sending your child back to school, whether it’s in-person or virtual, can be a heart-wrenching time for parents.

But, it’s even more complicated for parents with children who have special needs.

Marvin Selva’s daughter, Ambreen, 6, is ready to go back to school but Marvin is facing a difficult decision.

Ambreen is starting the first grade at Perry Township’s Abraham Elementary School next month.

"I thought we could say, ‘Let's go ahead and go’ but it's very scary,” Marvin said. "I want to prevent her from catching this virus. What's going to happen?”

Marvin also has to weigh the fact that Ambreen has Down’s syndrome and other health issues.

"Can she keep the mask on for longer than 5 minutes?” Marvin said. “Is she going to touch everything and grab things and put things in her mouth? These are all things I have to think about."

Ambreen receives therapies in school, and also thrives on interacting with her classmates, her father said.

Call 6 Investigates found more than 165,000 students in Indiana have a disability.

The Arc of Indiana is just one of the groups that advocates for students with special needs.

"Some of them are more susceptible to just illnesses, some of them have sensory issues where they do enjoy a hug,” Kim Dodson, executive director of Arc of Indiana, said. “Some students do enjoy touching their classmates and their teachers."

Dodson said so far, it’s a mixed bag from parents.

"It's 50/50,” Dodson said. “For every two parents that says I'm not sending my child back, we get two more that say heck yes I am."

The Arc of Indiana wants parents to know schools do still have to follow your child’s IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, even during virtual learning and a pandemic.

“Every school needs to follow an IEP and you should be meeting now to determine if anything needs to change because of virtual learning put into place,” Dodson said. "If your child is not capable of wearing a mask, then that needs to be put in an IEP so the school knows that and can work around that."

Call 6 Investigates asked the Indiana Department of Education what they’re doing to make sure students with special needs do not fall behind.

“We have to remember that our students with special needs still need to be served,” Adam Baker, spokesperson for IDOE, said. “Our drive from the very beginning is how do we work with these districts to make sure they understand you still need to provide those services. "

Baker said IDOE has made it clear to local school districts there’s very little wiggle room when it comes to students with special needs and the services they receive.

Baker said when a district fails to provide services, schools can be required to offer them after the fact, a concept known as compensatory services.

"That does help provide those services when those services become available,” Baker said. “We want to make sure our students with special needs, like all of our students, are not behind and there’s not remediation.”

The Indiana Department of Education has staff who can help mediate disputes between parents and local school districts.

IDOE’s Office of Special Education can be reached at specialeducation@doe.in.gov or call (317) 232-0570.

IDOE also created this document full of resources and guidance for special education.

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Marvin ultimately decided on virtual learning for his daughter, Ambreen. He knows it will make working from home more difficult and Ambreen will miss out on interacting with her peers.

"Now I'm like, am I going to be able to teach her like a teacher?” Marvin said. “I'm not licensed. I'm not trained to be a teacher. Can I do the same job the teacher is going to do at school for us?"

Marvin is working with Perry Township Schools and Ambreen’s teacher to make sure his daughter is getting therapies she’d normally get at school.

Perry Township Schools provided the following statement on special education instruction:

Perry Township Schools is committed to providing high-quality instruction to every student. Educators are keenly focused on ensuring students, who are enrolled in special education and general education programs, receive equitable access to learning resources in-person or online.
Despite the challenges that have emerged during the pandemic, teachers continue to build relationships with parents. They have ongoing conversations to ensure students get individualized therapies and services, as well as meet academic and social goals.
Also, we encourage parental involvement. Parents should always contact the student’s principal or teacher to discuss general concerns or questions or to request a Case Conference meeting.
The success of every child is significantly influenced by continuous communication between parents/guardians and educators.

For Marvin and many parents with children who have special needs, their biggest concern is making sure their kids are included and not treated differently, even during a pandemic.

"It's just scary you know,” Marvin said.