Andrei Fisher, a 13-year-old Albuquerque Public Schools student living with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, used to get about 30 hours a week of services when schools were open, his father, James Fisher, says.
Those services included speech and language pathology as Andrei has limited verbal skills and occupational therapy, which is all outlined in his Individualized Education Program. Known as an IEP, it’s a specialized plan for students in special education.
But through remote learning, Andrei is on track to get just about a sixth of that specialized instruction, James said. A major factor is that Andrei can’t sit in front of a computer for long periods and some hands-on instruction doesn’t translate over a screen.
“He has a great teacher. She’s wonderful and has the best intentions, willing to work very hard at the online model to make it work for him,” James said. “But because of his condition and his limited attention span and limited ability to communicate, we’re only able to do between 15 and 30 minutes online with him each day.”
James is aiming to build up to an hour a day online, but he feels ill-equipped.
“We’re not trained therapists,” James told the Journal.
Andrei and his family are not alone.
In August, the APS Board of Education voted to continue remote learning through the first semester but emphasized there would be exceptions for students with special needs.
Parents are waiting for specifics on those exceptions.
Stephanie Fascitelli, interim associate superintendent for special education, said a student has to have a disability IEP to be given an exception, and priority is given to students who are the most significantly disabled.
“Any student with a disability and student with an IEP that has demonstrated that they can’t engage in remote learning would be a strong contender for being able to come in for face-to-face or in-person, small group instruction,” she said.
Fascitelli said evaluation is on a case-by-case basis, but factors could include whether the students are able to participate and learn in a remote model or whether they have shown significant regression.
Educators will largely be the ones identifying students for the in-person groups, according to Fascitelli. Families can decline and stick with solely remote learning, though.
She said the special education groups will be five students per teacher. Cleaning and safety procedures will follow the APS reentry plan, Fascitelli said, including daily cleaning of high-touch surfaces, nightly classroom cleaning and mask requirements for students and staff.
What the schedule looks like will depend on the student, but Fascitelli said students will be able to come on campus for up to 3.25 instructional hours a day, up to five days a week. The aim is to keep kids at their home school, but some students will be put in nearby schools for the in-person instruction.
Fascitelli didn’t have a total count of how many families have expressed interest in the special education in-person learning.
Roughly 19% of APS’ student population is in special education with disabilities. But district officials have stressed that the small group, in-person instruction targets the most severely impacted students who can’t do remote learning because of their disability.
Other unknowns include staffing. Fascitelli wasn’t able to say as of Sept. 1 whether the district has enough educators who are willing and able to conduct the in-person special education. But she said the district and local teachers’ union is working on surveying staff.
The interim associate superintendent said the small groups would start “no sooner than Sept. 8,” but a firm start date hadn’t been nailed down. At a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, she told the members that “we have a soft, rolling start date in the next few weeks.”
But Sept. 8 is less than a week away and James said he hasn’t been given any details, including when in-person learning would start for Andrei or daily scheduling. He said Andrei’s teacher indicated that the 13-year-old would be a candidate for in-person learning but nothing has been confirmed.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.
APS spokeswoman Johanna King said the district won’t talk about specific student’s circumstances but encourages parents to contact their teacher or school with any issues.
Fascitelli said there have been success stories with remote learning and some students with disabilities have enjoyed it.
Christina Angel-Jolly, executive director of the New Mexico Autism Society, and Jenn Donelli, board president of NMAS, told the Journal that some students with disabilities are thriving because they’re able to have more control over their environment and schedule. Others are failing and regressing because they need in-person instruction.
“It’s definitely a broad range,” Donelli said. The two emphasized socioeconomic factors, where students are on the autism spectrum and geography are factors in the varying experiences.
Like a lot of kids on the spectrum, Andrei likes routine, but his structure has been completely shaken up with schoolwork being done at home.
James is concerned because Andrei isn’t progressing academically and is regressing emotionally and behaviorally.
“He’s frustrated and sad and bored … he’s expressed that he wants to go to school again and again,” James said.
James says the family’s options are limited. Right now, Andrei comes with James to work on the days he has to go into the office because he said city day care centers and private schools don’t typically cater to students with high levels of special needs.
James says every day out of the classroom compounds the problem.
“The longer they stay closed, the more (academic) debt they are accruing,” James said.