District 47 parents, students unhappy with lack of in-person special education services

Updated 11/16/2020 10:07 AM

Since Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 returned to remote learning this month, some parents of special education students are not happy with what they say is a lack of in-person services for their children, especially as they and their children continue to struggle with e-learning.

Remote learning has been "detrimental" for Fallon Dickson's kindergarten son, who attends South Elementary and is in the ASPIRE program for children with autism.


"(My son) locks himself in the bathroom and cries because he hates it so much," Dickson said. "He's nonverbal, so he can't explain to us why he's upset."

When he was physically at school, Dickson said her son's therapist saw normal progression, because he was getting one-on-one attention from teachers and aides. He typically gets speech, occupational and physical therapy, among other services.

Since starting remote learning again, Dickson's son has started regressing on some of his targets, his mother said his therapists have reported.

Another parent, Edith Yee-Fisher, has a 4-year-old with Down syndrome in District 47's Wehde Early Childhood Center.

He usually loves learning and had an "amazing" first year in school last year, but one day during remote learning this year, he threw his schoolwork in the toilet out of frustration.

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"That showed me that he's just as sick of it as we are," Yee-Fisher said.

Because Yee-Fisher's son is not proficient with a laptop, it can be hard for him to do his therapies virtually, she said.

"I have to be with him the entire time during the Zoom call, whether it's a therapy or something with a teacher," Yee-Fisher said.

Some school districts that initially began the school year remote had been working to bring back students with special needs for in-person services in September, the Northwest Herald has reported.

District 47 was among them and eventually brought back most students when it switched to hybrid Oct. 5. However, rising COVID-19 cases led the district to decide to go back to remote learning again starting Nov. 2.


Anthony Brooks, the district's director of special education, in a recent update to families, said the district is continuing to work with associations on how they can best support students with special needs, while also taking health and safety guidance into account.

"The topic of conversations and planning consists of how we can re-implement our return-to-learn plan safely during this time," he said.

Other school districts also are not bringing students back for in-person services at this time.

Kevin Lyons, spokesman for Woodstock School District 200, said the district does not have special needs students coming into the building currently, although they did in September. When COVID-19 numbers spiked in October, all live instruction was shut down.

Huntley School District 158 also is planning on talking to families about opportunities for in-person experiences for special education students soon, according to its website.

Some local districts, including Crystal Lake High School District 155, still have specialized programming in session.

Kim Dahlem, District 155's director of student services, said they have been able to assess any COVID-19 exposures and contacts; contact trace; quarantine individuals if needed; and open and close classrooms if they need to.

Dahlem pointed out that as a bigger high school district, District 155 has some resources that might not be available in smaller elementary school districts.

"I think that's what allowed us to be so successful," she said.

Denise Barr, a spokeswoman for District 47, said because of a continued increase of COVID-19 health metrics for McHenry and Lake counties, including the specific ZIP codes District 47 students live in, substantial community spread has affected the district's ability to staff an in-person model.

One of these metrics, which is the county's positivity rate, was at 21.2% as of Nov. 10, more than double the 8% where the McHenry County Department of Health said it's advisable to have hybrid learning, the county's school COVID-19 metrics dashboard shows.

Barr said in an email to the Northwest Herald the McHenry County health department's guidance for schools recommends that when schools enter a remote learning phase, all learning is remote for all learners.

Still, Jackie Tonyan, whose 9-year-old-son at Glacier Ridge has Fragile X syndrome and autism, said the fact there wasn't really a push to keep the special education students in school was a shock to her.

"He's so anxious and upset, and doesn't understand what's going on," Tonyan said.

Tonyan's son thrives at school but the online platform is hard for him to engage with, she said.

"These are strange times, and we're trying to keep everyone happy and safe. And I 100% value that," Tonyan said. "But the fact that there was no push for this population to stay in school or at least keep them keep that program live and running (for) a small group, or at least drop-in services, that was really disappointing."

Allison Mueller has a first-grade student with Down syndrome who attends Husmann Elementary School.

"Right now it's challenging," Mueller said. "Our teachers at our schools, and our therapists have been wonderful in trying to adjust. But it comes nowhere near the level of what she needs."

Her first grader receives occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and specialized learning, and also spends time with her general education teacher remotely, which means a lot of screen time.

"I'm still waiting for an explanation, from the board and the administration, on why they felt the need to take these services away in person," Mueller said.

Brooks, the district's special education director, agrees in-person instruction is the ideal learning model and said in a statement that District 47 staff are committed to educating and providing services to students.

But, Brooks said, there are a "variety" of factors impacting the district's ability to implement and sustain an in-person or hybrid model, including contractual obligations to various workgroups.

"We have a responsibility to our families and staff to ensure health and safety and to try not to significantly contribute to the community spread of this virus," Brooks said. "This requires us to continually monitor the state, region, county and ZIP code metrics, as well as contact trace and quarantine staff and students according to Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines. We continue to be committed to exploring ways to provide services for special education students and to work with our families individually to meet their students' needs."

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