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special education
COURTESY NEIFO/PIXABAY
The Montclair schools have opened to some special education students this week.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Some of Montclair’s special education students are going back to school today.

In the weeks leading up to the reopening, parents told the district they wanted full transparency on safety regulations and staffing levels before they made a decision on whether they wanted their children to return.

On Oct. 2, the district announced that students in grades Pre-K through 5 who are receiving applied behavior analysis (ABA) services would start returning to the classroom today. Those students will receive testing to determine what their academic and social needs will be for the new school year and instruction at Charles H. Bullock School, which district officials say has sufficient space and air conditioning and ventilation systems that meet the district’s health and safety requirements. ABA services are commonly used in the classroom in working with children who have conditions such as autism. 

Parent Aditi Piplani said at the Oct. 7 Board of Education meeting that the reopening plan lacked collaboration between the district and parents. She accused the district of using ABA students as “guinea pigs.” 

According to Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, director of pupil services Tom Santagato discussed the reopening plans with the families of students receiving ABA services, so those families could make a decision on whether to allow their children to return to the classroom.

Of Montclair’s 6,559 students on the rolls for the 2020-2021 school year, 1,057 are receiving special education services.

Some families of special education students have said that their children have not been doing well, academically or socially, with distance learning. Students who usually receive in-person services such as physical or occupational therapy cannot meet with therapists in person, while paraprofessionals who usually work with a child in person have to conduct one-to-one sessions electronically. 

But at the Oct. 7 Board of Education meeting, some parents and teachers said they did not feel safe with in-person education resuming today.  

Rachel Rosenberg, who has a child in kindergarten, said she was in favor of in-person learning, but she called for transparency from the district on the reopening process. 

Netania Zigorski, the parent of a second-grader, said her son has physical and social issues that preclude him from being able to go back to school in person. She called the reopening plan for ABA students “hasty, extremely opaque.”  

Teachers likewise have raised concerns. At the Oct. 7 BOE meeting, paraprofessionals and special education staff said they had received the reopening plan only that day. 

Cathy Kondreck, the Montclair Education Association’s secretary, said she had received numerous phone calls and emails from ABA staff that day. Staff wanted to know that their safety is being made a priority, she said. 

Kondreck said that the central office had not sent out any communication about reopening plans to staff until 5 p.m. that day, and that ABA staff had not been asked for feedback on the reopening plan. 

Bullock was scheduled to host PSATs on Oct. 14, and with the school opening up for ABA students the next day, some voiced concerns over the school being cleaned and disinfected by that time. 

Other parents wanted to know if there would be an upper limit on the number of staff that their children interacted with during the day. 

The district said in an announcement sent out Friday, Oct. 9: “We are mandated by the New Jersey Department of Education to provide an in-person model. Our facility and safety plan at Bullock has been reviewed by the Montclair Department of Health and our internal medical team, as we take the safety of our students and staff seriously. All parents/guardians of students in our ABA program have been called by caseworkers and administration to review the plans and ascertain whether or not they wish their children to return to school.”  

The Special Education Parents Advisory Council said in a statement over the weekend, “Parents of children with special needs share all of the same concerns of neurotypical or general education students, but we must also consider the disabilities or diagnoses of our children. These can make it anywhere between imperative to return to in-person schooling, or impossible to do so.

“Many of our families, including those in ABA, MAP [Montclair Achievement Program] and other self-contained classes, are awaiting additional details and information to make informed decisions between hybrid and full-remote schooling.” 

Ponds said the district would make every effort to increase communication. 

“We’re not here to judge. We’re here to support and help,” he said. He assured families who chose to remain remote that they would continue to receive services, and that the rigor of instruction would be upheld. For those families who chose to allow their children to return to school, safety measures would be upheld, he said. 

“I have children, our people here have children, we recognize the urgency around this,” Ponds said. 

Board member Allison Silverstein, who has been involved with the special ed advisory council,  reminded families that everyone has a different opinion, and urged families not to judge each other based on their preferences for in-person or remote learning, but to support each other.