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Many mornings in this long pandemic summer, the small boy with shoulder-length braids would eye his backpack hanging on the door of his Roslindale bedroom and tell his mom, “I want to go to school.”
And Micah Blackwood really meant it.
Micah, a 4-year-old with developmental delays, and his family have been waiting for Boston Public Schools to reopen — anticipating that the city will bring back the littlest learners with special needs for in-person instruction, even if no one else.
But with less than three weeks left before the start of school, huge questions remain about what the fall will look like for thousands of students like Micah Blackwood, including when they will be able to return for in-person instruction and how extensive it will be.
When district officials released their reopening plan nearly two weeks ago, they said the hybrid model would be introduced in phases, with the highest-needs students returning two days a week at the start of October, elementary and middle school students coming back by early November, and all high school students returning to classrooms two days a week by the end of November.
But further details have been slow in coming, leaving many families in the dark about whether their children qualify as having high needs and, thus, when they will be able to return.
“Everybody is in limbo, because nobody knows anything,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “They haven’t communicated with families what their children are even eligible for.”
And what they are eligible for seems like a moving target. In an abrupt departure from the published return-to-school plan, a district spokesman told the Globe that high-needs students may qualify for four days a week of in-person instruction, not two, raising new questions about whether the district will actually have the capacity to bring all students back in person by the end of November.
The uncertainty is particularly unsettling for parents of students with special needs, like Brittany Fox Blackwood, Micah’s mother. She said she has received no information about whether Micah qualifies to return Oct. 1 — much less whether it will be two or four days a week. “I’ve not heard one single thing,” she said.
Blackwood has no confidence in the district’s published plan. Since socialization is particularly important for her son, “only two days . . . to be around peers is not enough.”
District officials say they very recently defined what they consider “high needs” and are communicating that to families. It includes about half of students who receive special education services, some English learners, homeless students, and children in foster care. An estimated 17 percent of the district’s students fall into one of those categories.
The special education students considered high needs are those who attend what are known as “substantially separate” classrooms, meaning they spend most of their days apart from mainstream students. It also includes students with very high needs in mainstream classrooms and those at a few specialized schools such as Horace Mann School for the Deaf.
District officials said earlier this week that many high needs students would be given the chance to learn in person four days a week. But on Thursday morning they backtracked, saying the four day option might be more limited.
Students with disabilities who are not classified high needs will not be able to return early, said district spokesman Xavier Andrews.
The district “understands the urgency and appreciates the patience of our families as we continue our planning for the fall,” he said. The district “will be in touch with families shortly with information about their school schedule.”
Advocates for children with disabilities say the district has been slow to articulate a plan that prioritizes its most vulnerable students.
“The most vulnerable learners should be at the head of the list,” said John Mudd, a member of the School Committee’s English Language Learner task force and a retired project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.
Other districts, including Cambridge, Newton, and Somerville, have publicly stated for several weeks that children with special needs will be prioritized for three or four days a week of in-person instruction.
In Boston, students with disabilities haven’t gotten any in-person instruction from the public schools since they closed in March. By contrast, 90 districts, or about a third of the statewide total, brought students with disabilities back for in-person instruction over the summer.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said that students with disabilities have remained a top concern, citing the recent push to expand their time in the classroom to four days a week.
“We are prioritizing our special education students,” she said. “We believe we can have additional days for those students that are coming in that are highest needs.”
The pandemic arrived at a critical moment for special education in Boston: A state audit released in March found “systemic disarray” in the city’s special education offerings, and stark disparities in students’ access to high-quality schools, experienced teachers, and inclusive settings.
On top of that, students with disabilities were among the hardest hit by the abrupt shift to online learning, with families and advocates reporting that hundreds of them struggled to access classes on Zoom, missed critical therapy sessions, and regressed academically or emotionally — if not both.
Cassellius said their plight during the spring and summer was “one of the things that was most regrettable and challenging and difficult for me personally.”
The struggle for parents and children was likewise challenging, difficult — and infuriating.
Aginah Monique and her 9-year-old son, who has a reading-related disability, have been in a constant struggle to keep up since schools closed down. “We had to check in with every teacher, and they were all using different platforms. It was insane,” she said. “We both just wanted off.”
Monique lamented that she wasn’t able to help her son as much as he needed. She simply couldn’t risk her losing her job.
“There’s no comparison between remote and in-person learning,” said Edith Bazile, a former district special education instructor and administrator who recently served as president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. “The inequities have been exacerbated, and they will continue to widen.”
Bazile said she would like to see the district much more aggressively utilize its 35 school buildings with up-to-date ventilation systems to bring back special education students first and for most of the school week.
A letter sent from the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council to city councilors and districts leaders echoed the importance of in-person instruction.
“We want to know why . . . those 35 schools aren’t already filled with high-needs students if they’re ready and those are the safe schools,” said the council’s chair, Roxann Harvey, who has two children with special needs. “These children will never get this year back.”
Ethan d’Ablemont Burnes, the assistant superintendent who oversees special education, said that before committing to four days a week even for students with severe disabilities, officials have had to do a close assessment of available space. “It is very complicated from a scheduling standpoint,” he said.
The district has made great strides in improving online learning for students with disabilities, including ensuring that families don’t have to use multiple platforms to submit homework or communicate with teachers, added d’Ablemont Burnes. Still, he concedes that some students can’t learn remotely, and said the district is looking into providing some services at students’ homes or in community centers.
State officials have asked districts to identify the special education students with the highest needs and prioritize them for in-person services and “compensatory” education to try to make up for the spring’s disruption.
Yet families have questioned how effective compensatory services will be — especially if they’re online.
“You can’t hit the rewind button . . . and say, ‘Now if I give you a bunch of this on the back end that will make up for what was lost,’ ” said Michael Colanti, whose 4-year-old daughter struggled to learn remotely in the spring. “You’re 3 or 4 once — that’s it.”
Colanti’s daughter, Mae, has Down syndrome and attends the Henderson School. After weeks of reaching out unsuccessfully to school and district officials, the family learned that Mae is likely to qualify for an Oct. 1 start. But school officials said it may be several weeks before they know if Mae can come back two or four days a week, according to Colanti.
“It’s just been absolutely exhausting,” he said. “We don’t know when there’s going to be clarity.”
The pandemic, and the extended shift to remote instruction, have exacerbated longstanding inequities in BPS special education offerings, including several of those identified in the state audit, such as access to high-quality services, according to several families.
That growing inequity is evident in the contrasting experiences of Colanti’s and Blackwood’s young children. Both families feel certain that their children regressed throughout the pandemic. But in Colanti’s case, his daughter, who attends a school well regarded for its special education program, received relatively uninterrupted (if unproductive, given Mae’s age and disability) remote services throughout the spring, including daily 30-minute classes and regular speech, occupational, and physical therapy. The Henderson has a more middle income, somewhat whiter student population than the average Boston elementary school.
By contrast, Blackwood said that Micah has received almost no live instruction — even online — since March. That was right after the family arrived in Boston after an overseas military posting and enrolled him in the district. He was assigned to the Trotter School, which enrolls predominantly Black, Latino, and lower-income students.
A district spokesman said other parents were pleased with their children’s remote special education at Trotter. He added that school records show Micah wasn’t registered until late May, although his mother supplied the Globe with a document showing she enrolled him in early March.
Blackwood said she has had to fight to get Micah the two weekly speech therapy sessions required by his education plan; he received only three over the five months. During those sessions, which were all held via Zoom, Micah reached for his toys, uninterested in the stranger on the screen.
“Throughout my 32-year career in BPS, I saw that white families get more high-quality services than Black families,” Bazile said. “If you look at the patterns of who gets supports, who gets contacted, who is provided with services, the equity is just not there for Black and brown students.”
The state audit from March, for instance, found that Black and Latino students — particularly boys — were about twice as likely as white students to be in “substantially separate” classrooms where they seldom interact with peers without disabilities. Research shows the more time students with disabilities spend in isolated classrooms, the worse they score on the MCAS standardized test and perform behaviorally and academically.
And now the pandemic may slow efforts to fix the disparities. Even d’Ablemont Burnes said logistical planning for the fall might delay developing a broader plan to address some of the longstanding issues.
“COVID-19 will take energy and attention away from everything else, including special education reform,” Mudd said.
That’s exactly what Katrina Norman, whose son with dyslexia attends Boston Latin School, is afraid of. She’s concerned that the district has grown so consumed by the logistics of reopening schools that there won’t be any time to improve instruction and oversight at individual schools in the way that’s needed to make special education stronger and more equitable.
Even at coveted Boston Latin, for instance, students with special needs aren’t always receiving the services and progress reports they are eligible for, she said.
Norman hopes the school system will use the crisis to rethink how it serves her son and others with disabilities. “It would be nice if we could put it back together better,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem like they can.”