Many parents, who were notified on Wednesday last week, question why the Fairfax school system waited until four to five days before the summer sessions were supposed to start to inform them.
The summer programs are especially essential to students with special needs because without them, students can rapidly lose academic skills, as well as essential social and emotional skills during the summer months.
Cindy Bendel had spent the past month preparing her son, who is on the autism spectrum and in the sixth grade, to attend his in-person summer school.
Children with autism often struggle to adjust to changes in routine, so Bendel has been talking for weeks to her son about how he would be riding the school bus and even printed out a calendar so that he could count down the days until Monday’s start of summer school.
“I still haven’t told him yet about the change, because don’t know what to say to him,” said Bendel, of Centreville, Va.
Bendel has spent the past three days calling and emailing in vain to summer camps and other programs, which at this point are all full, she said.
“If they would have told me a month ago or even a few weeks, I could have done something about this,” Bendel said. “I don’t blame the teachers or even the special needs department, but something went really wrong here.”
School leaders across America have looked to expand their instruction programs this summer in hopes of reaching students who fell behind academically during the pandemic. But many districts have found it challenging to convince exhausted teachers to sign up for summer school after an emotionally, intellectually and physically draining year that required totally overhauling teaching styles several times in quick succession.
In the Washington region, Arlington Public Schools had to cut its summer program from 5,000 to 3,000 students after not enough teachers agreed to work through the summer.
For students with disabilities, the summer program — called “Extended School Year” — is offered every year to ensure they don’t lose educational gains made during the school year.
Fairfax school system officials say they tried several times to recruit more teachers for their summer programs. The system even included a list of incentives, including signing bonuses, 1.5 times the regular hourly compensation and the ability to job share. They also encouraged general education teachers to sign up for the special education program. Even then, the school system could only hire about 75 percent of the staffing required to run it.
School officials said they considered other options such as increasing class sizes, but felt it was important to keep class sizes small. Instead, the school system says it plans to split up the original summer program — which was supposed to take place from June 28 to July 23 — into two blocks with some students with special needs moved into a second session tentatively scheduled from July 26 to August 12. The school system is trying to hire enough staff to make the second session possible, officials said. About 700 of the 1,200 being deferred into the later second session were virtual students, and roughly 500 were planning to attend in-person.
“While this is very disappointing to us, it is not completely surprising as school districts across the region and the nation are meeting the same challenges following the pandemic,” said school spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell. “Many staff need this summer to recharge and prepare for a strong in-person classroom return on August 23.”
Caldwell added, “Services have not been curtailed; no child is being denied of any service.”
Several parents, however, say the late notice makes it unlikely their children will be able to attend that second session.
Alev Weidman of Falls Church said her daughter already has a summer camp planned for those weeks. Her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum and will be in the 11th grade this fall, has been attending the summer school program since middle school to retain what she learned academically and also to ease the social adjustment of returning to school in the fall.
Weidman said she called the school system repeatedly in recent weeks to check on the status of the summer program but wasn’t told it would be delayed until Thursday.
“I’m not blaming the teachers, who have been trying their best this whole last year,” she said. “But the lack of understanding and care for these kids with special needs throughout the pandemic has been awful.”
Fairfax County Public Schools, whose 180,000 students make it Virginia’s largest school district, has struggled to serve students with disabilities since schools shuttered a year and a half ago because of the pandemic. Like school systems nationwide, Fairfax had difficulty replicating online the wide array of in-person services — such as speech therapy and physical therapy — typically offered to special-education students.
Under federal law, children with disabilities attending public schools receive a specialized course of instruction known as an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, which is supposed to ensure they have the same learning opportunities as their peers without disabilities. Fairfax enrolls nearly 27,000 students who follow IEPs. Only a portion of those IEP students qualify for the special-needs summer program.
A few weeks after schools closed in March 2020, Fairfax told parents it was pausing students’ IEPs — claiming the plans were impossible to fulfill virtually — until brick-and-mortar schooling could resume. A few months later, a half dozen parents of students with disabilities filed a complaint about this pause with the state of Virginia. Officials opened an investigation into that complaint in May 2020 and concluded with the finding that Fairfax was in full compliance with the law.
Fairfax is also facing federal scrutiny. In late 2020, the Education Department opened an investigation into whether Fairfax — as well as other large districts, including those in Seattle and Los Angeles — failed students with disabilities during the pandemic. The federal investigation is ongoing.