Eli Daniluk, 4, looks out from his school bus on the first day that special education students were returning to in-person education in Loudoun County. He goes to Cool Springs Elementary in Leesburg, Virginia.
As Principal Derek Racino welcomes back students to Sycolin Creek Elementary School in Leesburg, he watches as one of his students in a wheelchair is lowered onto a ramp. School staff is waiting, ready to take the young boy inside for his first day of in-person classes since March.
The bell rings.
"It feels good," says Racino. "It's a sound we're definitely looking forward to hearing more and more often, that's for sure."
Loudoun County Public Schools welcomed back 3,600 students for in person classes last week, the first public school system in the Washington region to do so. In a survey conducted a few months ago, about half of parents and teachers in Loudoun County schools chose hybrid instruction — students would have in-person classes for two days a week, and online classes for the other three.
The students returning first to classrooms are a fraction of the school system's total enrollment of more than 83,000 students, but Superintendent Eric Williams says that's by design. Schools will reopen in phases, and among those returning first are students with the most significant disabilities, many of whom are usually in separate classes with specialized teachers. Pre-Kindergartners and English-language learners are also among the first wave of students to return.
"We are prioritizing some student groups that have the most difficult time successfully learning in a distance learning environment," says Williams.
And that's a relief for Abby Morris, who's dropping off her son at Sycolin Creek Elementary for the first time in seven months. "It's different, but I know he's in good hands," she says.
Parents in other school districts have praised Loudoun County as an example of one that's doing right by its children with disabilities. But inside the county, many parents say the reality is much more complicated.
Schools have made lots of changes to prepare for re-opening in a pandemic. At Sycolin Creek Elementary, only eight of the 600 children will be back. Still, Racino says most of the desks and chairs have been removed, and there are signs on every wall reminding children to wear a mask.
Derek Racino is the principal at Sycolin Creek Elementary School in Leesburg. Staff removed many of the tables and chairs in each classroom so students can stay at least six feet apart from each other.
School administrators are also trying to make it easier for children not to touch things. Doors will now be left open so they won't touch knobs, the bathroom taps have been changed to "no touch" faucets, and there are arrows on the ground showing children which way to walk.
"We've changed the school to a one-way hallway school," he says. "Everyone will travel in a counterclockwise pattern throughout the day just so we eliminate classes passing each other and getting within six feet."
Suzanne Martin is one of the teachers who chose to work in the hybrid model. She's missed her students, and says she's had health and safety training over the summer and knows there's personal protective equipment available makes her feel safe. Some teachers will use the equipment when feeding children, helping them in the bathroom, or in Martin's case, when teaching them to write.
"We have the N95 masks and the shields and the gloves and the gowns if needed, I feel confident that I will be protected," she says.
Principal Racino and other staff at this school say they feel good about how they've prepared to welcome students back, but also about the online instruction they have been offering until this point. "Distance learning has gone well. I have no complaints at all," says Racino.
'Far From Gold'
But many parents of children with disabilities across Loudoun County disagree. While they say that staff and teachers at their children's schools have been doing the best they can, parents blame the superintendent and school board for the challenges their children have faced. All of them say they have written letters or testified at public meetings detailing their struggles, yet have received no response.
September O'Brien says special education staff was cut at her son's school even before schools closed in March. She has two children receiving special education services in the school system. "This is the wealthiest county in the country and this is the gold standard supposedly. And I can tell you, it is far from gold," she says.
O'Brien says online classes have been a disaster, especially for her six-year-old. "When you have a day where half of your stuff isn't working, the things that are working are glitching, and you have a child who has attention issues, social- emotional issues, they become totally disengaged," she says.
O'Brien had enthusiastically signed up her six-year-old son for hybrid classes. Then she learned that masks were not mandatory. Loudoun County is making exceptions for kids who struggle with wearing them. O'Brien says this means her son who has severe asthma now has to stay home.
"You have a whole population of kids and staff and teachers who have compromised immune systems. And it's not fair to them to not be able to go to school," she says. "We know that masks protect people. So why wouldn't they require it?"
Veronica Martinez has an 11-year-old daughter who has autism and other disabilities but is in a general education classroom with students who don't have disabilities. Martinez says her daughter has not had any education since March. "All her teachers wrote on her report card that she is not a good candidate for virtual learning. She needs one-on-one personal learning. So I signed up for hybrid," she says.
Martinez was told that her daughter could return to school with the first wave of students, but only if she was moved to a classroom for children with far more significant needs. She says she worries those classes aren't as challenging. "That will put her on a different track where she would not be able to get a diploma. But that's the only way I can get her into school," she says. "It breaks my heart."
Another mother from Sterling, Virginia who asked WAMU not to use her name says her daughter is repeating kindergarten because she couldn't learn through online classes. She has high prescription glasses and struggles to see the screen. "Twenty-plus kids in one screen, she was covering her ears. It was just too much," she says.
The only therapies she gets now are through private insurance and Medicaid. Added to that, this mother is worried about losing her job. "I work full time, so I cannot homeschool," she says.
Superintendent Williams says he understands parents' frustration that their children aren't in school, but he says the school system had to start small. "It's also important to get it right in order to build the foundation for continuing to implement a hybrid model in stages," he says.
Ashleigh Daniluk and her son, Owen Daniluk, 9, emerge from their house at 6:10 a.m. as they get ready to catch the school bus for the first day that special education students were returning to in-person education in Loudoun County. He goes to Algonkian Elementary in Leesburg, VA.
A National Challenge
Joshua Starr is the CEO of Phi Delta Kappa International, a non-profit organization that supports educators. He's also the former superintendent of Montgomery County Schools who started out as a special education teacher. He says struggles over how to best educate students with disabilities during the pandemic are happening across the country.
"If you could design a part of a system that is least equipped to deal with the kind of flexibility, innovation and sort of nebulousness of the current COVID crisis, it would be the American public special education system," he says. "The rules and laws, which are incredibly important and essential, also make it really difficult to make the kind of nuanced, quick decisions that are so important."
Parents face the almost impossible task of juggling jobs, other children and advocating for their child with special needs. Many say their children cannot learn online and have watched therapies end and their child's progress come to a screeching halt.
At the same time, school systems are faced with the unenviable task of "triaging" students when so many are falling behind. School districts are trying to keep costs down, manage staff who are stretched thin and avoid lawsuits. "There's enormous consequences for school systems if they do it wrong," says Starr.
Starr says the main factor that will result in positive outcomes for children is if there is trust between families and the school system. But trust is in short supply.
Parents and school districts are supposed to agree on a learning plan known as an Individualized Education Program for every child eligible for special education. The document is protected by federal law.
Scott Levin, who has a nine-year-old son with special needs, says Loudoun County traditionally also included a short parent statement stating that parents and schools will cooperate and a bit about when special education services would not be provided, like on a snow day. "I think most people accept the school shouldn't be responsible in those days because there's no reasonable way they can have school on those days," he says.
But when Levin read through the dense legalese in his son's new IEP at the start of this academic year, he noticed the new parent statement was much longer and included all kinds of exceptions.
"Reasons such as inclement weather, pandemics, health emergencies, the student illness, the student's inability to participate safety or health reasons, holidays, partial days, partial weeks and teacher planning days," he says.
Levin says the new learning plan also allows for changes through the school year without the need for parental meetings, as is required by law. "That's outrageous," he says.
"I am willing to bet that the vast majority of parents don't even know the statement is in there, or that it changed. They probably spent time on the sections of the IEP that dealt with the changes that were going to actually affect their kids on a day to day basis," he says.
Loudoun County says the new parent statement allows the district to be more flexible and "allow for a fluid transition of special education services" if classes move between hybrid and online. According to a Power Point presentation the district created, it will also minimize delays in providing services, maximize instruction time and protect the time of parents, teachers and administrators by reducing the number of meetings.
The district says IEP meetings often take a week or longer to schedule and could take multiple hours (or multiple meetings), which can result in a delay in services. There is no requirement that parents agree to this language, and they can request a meeting with school officials at any time. Several parents, including Levin, have refused to sign.
"We understand that parents may choose not to sign certain documents," says Superintendent Eric Williams. "And even if that's the case, we're still going to work to provide a free and appropriate public education to each and every student."
Loudoun County will begin bringing back Kindergarten through 2nd grade on October 27. By December, they hope to have 18,000 children back in school.