Visions Unlimited, which serves as the primary location for Farmington Public Schools’ special education department, took a pause from in-person instruction after the Board of Education approved the measure Nov. 24. The pause is slated to last until Jan. 11.

Visions Unlimited, which serves as the primary location for Farmington Public Schools’ special education department, took a pause from in-person instruction after the Board of Education approved the measure Nov. 24. The pause is slated to last until Jan. 11.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

FPS parents react to pause of in-person special education services

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published December 22, 2020


FARMINGTON/HILLS — Students across the Farmington Public Schools district haven’t stepped foot inside a classroom since March. Virtual learning has become their new reality.

While some have taken the transition in stride, others, especially those in special education, have been presented with new challenges and heightened frustrations. The district did welcome back special education students for half-day instruction in early September, but that in-person instruction was short lived.

The Board of Education voted 4-0 Nov. 24 to approve pausing special education services, as well as early childhood services, throughout the district until at least Jan. 11. Board member Angie Smith was absent from the meeting.

Executive Director of Special Education Jackie McDougal said it was “with great regret” her department had to pause in-person learning, but they felt it was the right decision given how quickly COVID-19 had grown from one case to several among staff across her department.

“I was so positive about how well students were doing and how well the classes were going, and there were no infections, but within a week’s time, it turned around so quickly,” McDougal said. “We had a staff (member) who tested positive for COVID-19 … and then ever after we went on a pause, we continued to have staff who continued to test positive. We’re looking at how quickly the turnaround was from working really well in the classroom to cases coming that have caused us to have to pause.”

When parent Tricia Price, whose 20-year-old son, Jacob, is enrolled at Visions Unlimited, heard that announcement, she was frustrated and didn’t think the district was putting students first.

“I think the administration and the school board have failed us miserably,” she said, adding that in the summer, a majority of parents voiced their desire for some form of in-person learning. “When you listen to the school board turn a deaf ear on all these parents, it just makes me furious.”

Parent Paul Kopp, who’s 24-year-old son, Bryce, has autism, also attends Visions Unlimited, said he “was not super thrilled” with the decision to pause either.

“That’s probably a massive understatement,” he said. “It’s not necessarily because I think it’s the wrong decision, for sure, but I can’t even evaluate the decision because they’re being so not transparent with how they’re making it. I feel like whatever criteria they’re using is muddy at best.”

While Price was happy to have Jacob attend class, even just for half days, she’s already noticed the negative impacts of fully remote instruction. Jacob is diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by mild-to-moderate intellectual disability.

“He needs that in-person interaction to help him learn how to have conversations,” Price said, adding that his communication skills have degraded since the state shutdown in March. “He was doing so well. He was learning how to listen to what someone was saying to him. … Now he’s gone back to a lot of rambling. I’ve seen it really hurt his communication because he’s not getting that socialization with people around him all the time.”

Kopp said he’s seen Bryce’s developmental skills regress too.

“He was definitely going back to some of the old things he used to stress about and hadn’t had meltdowns over in years. All of a sudden, he was having meltdowns again. That’s kind of the way it was playing out,” he said.

Kopp has managed to minimize the social regression by having his son Bryce attend a private center half-time, and now full-time due to the pause. While Kopp said his household may be a little less stressful because of that, his wallet is taking the brunt of the damage. He’s paying roughly $2,400 per month out of pocket for the private services.

Jacob’s social experiences require in-person interaction, his mom said.

“His only interaction with people is seeing them in person. He doesn’t have friends on his phone he can call, so going to school is so essential for him. It keeps his mood and his spirits high,” Price said.

Board member Terri Weems acknowledged the damage this pause may cause, but still felt that, given the rise in community spread of COVID-19, taking a break from in-person services was the right thing to do.

“Our future is just really at stake here, guys, with nearly a year out of school. I’ve got some grave concerns, but we are where we are,” she said Nov. 24. “I do support the recommendation, especially given the conditions we’re in right now. The data certainly supports this.”

Although Kopp isn’t optimistic the pause will be lifted Jan. 11, there could still be a silver lining for special education students.

“One of the things we see in the future that could be of help when we return to our classes will be to come back full time, rather than three hours per day, as we’re doing right now,” McDougal said. “We’re going to look to build in full time, so we can help support those students who have been having those difficulties working virtually.”

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