FCPS was set to begin their Extended School Year (ESY) June 28, but due to a staffing shortage, have had to postpone many special needs students attending classes. While some students started their ESY June 28, about 1,200 will have to wait until proposed July 26 for their classes to begin.
ESY is critical for some students to not only maintain what they have learned, but to ease the stress of transitioning back into school in the fall.
With COVID keeping students at home the past year and putting many at risk of falling behind in their education, ESY is critical for students to keep up with learning. But FCPS said there were not enough teachers to accommodate the students four-week ESY session, and it needed to be split into two groups. Even with incentives for teachers to sign up, such as signing bonuses and offering a 50 percent increase in regular hourly pay, FCPS could not fill the teaching slots.
The president of the Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia (POAC-NoVA) group, Susan Edgerton, is concerned about the fruition of the second session as they struggled to obtain enough teachers for the first session. “We have concerns about human resources and their ability to recruit effectively and efficiently. Getting the teachers should be the first thing they focused on,” said Edgerton. “Why not tell the parents sooner? If you know it is going to be a problem, and clearly they knew, they should have told us earlier.”
The delay of ESY leaves many children at home, and parents being forced to figure out what to do with their children for four weeks with just a five-day notice. Many are looking for camps, therapy or alternative childcare for their children, but are finding it difficult. “You cannot find developmentally appropriate places in a few days. It is impossible to turn around finding something else in that time, our kids are hard to place,” said Edgerton. “We want to be told if the second session will be cancelled at least two weeks in advance so we can find proper placement.”
Edgerton and POAC-NoVa are not only pushing for more communication from the county, but for more transparency, as well. “If they are going to provide some sort of reimbursable services, they need to say who is getting them and what the services are instead of it being a secret case by case. If there is no policy, there is no equity,” Edgerton said. “We want to spread the word and tell parents if they can get reimbursed, but no one knows if they are eligible.”
Many parents are outraged and feel this push back of ESY is illegal under Virginia law. The Virginia regulations regarding ESY state that: “In implementing the requirements, a local educational agency may not:Limit extended school year services to particular categories of disability, Unilaterally limit the type, amount, or duration of those services; orLimit the provision of extended school year services to only the summer.”
Cheri Belkowitz, a local attorney with her own practice, is taking the side of parents on this issue. “FCPS needs to educate its staff on ESY regulations. It needs to be a student-centered progress. It’s not about what the school district chooses to offer, rather it’s about what the individual student needs based upon unique circumstances,” said Belkowitz. “If a student requires ESY services from June 11 through August 23, it needs to be made available. The teacher shortage this summer just magnifies the problem with a system that is already broken.”
In terms of legal obligations of the county, Belkowitz thinks FCPS might be in violation of state law. “In my opinion, many school districts in Virginia, including FCPS, are violating 8VAC20-81-100(J) which states that the school district ‘may not . . . unilaterally limit the type, amount or duration of those services…’ At IEP meetings, the IEP team always refers to the pre-determined in-building ESY session rather than looking at the individual student’s needs,” Belkowitz said. “The FCPS website states that ESY dates are June 28 through July 23. In my opinion, that is limiting the type, amount and duration of ESY services.”
FCPS feels they are not breaking any laws. School Spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell told the Washington Post, “Services have not been curtailed; no child is being denied of any service.” But many parents are still outraged and want answers.
FCPS parent of a special needs student Eileen Chollet disagrees with the county. “Every student with a disability has a federally-protected civil right (per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) to have decisions made based on their individual circumstances,” she said. “A one-size-fits-all solution which solely considers the needs of the school district, like the one FCPS is trying to impose, is a clear civil rights violation. FCPS should work individually with families. Potential solutions include paying for private services like tutoring or speech therapy, placing the student in a nearby school district, or placing the student in the FCPS general education summer program with special education support.”
Chollet is also angered by the lack of use of federal funds to solve the situation. “FCPS has received nearly $350 million in federal COVID relief funding, and special education services are listed under five of the 12 allowable uses for these funds,” Chollet said. “Yet FCPS has only allocated 0.2 percent of these funds for special education supports and services, a mere $27 per special education student in Fairfax County.”
With the tentative start date for the second session of ESY beginning July 26, many parents have their eyes on the school board as they fear their children may not get any ESY classes.