GARDINER — Earlier this month, Christina Hobbs wrote a letter to the Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors, urging them to maintain in-person instruction for students who require special learning services — even if the schools change their model due to increasing coronavirus cases.

Hobbs’s son, A.J. Ricker, is an eighth-grader at Gardiner Regional Middle School. He is in cohort D — meaning that he attends classes in person four days a week, a contrast to the hybrid schedule for cohorts A and B, whose students meet twice a week in the school building.

Her argument was that during the district’s switch to the “red,” or a fully remote model, A.J. was losing the time he needed to successfully continue his learning. Hobbs said the disruption to the schedule meant he was unable to make progress in both his studies and personal growth.

Hobbs said anytime the district switched to “red” — which has happened three times so far this academic year — A.J. missed out on a week and a half of school time that he needs.

Christina Hobbs, right, and her son A.J. Ricker pose for a portrait Dec. 11, after the school bus brought him back to their home. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Because he had only learned one way, by using worksheets, when trying to do it on the laptop he has to relearn all the work,” she said. “We have to take time to explain the work to do it this way versus doing it the other way. The time is being lost because we are teaching him over again.”

A.J., who his mother said is on the autism spectrum and non-verbal, currently completes work at a third-grade level. He also attends school in the summer to maintain his routine.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, MSAD 11 went fully remote from then through the beginning of September and A.J. started to not be the “happy boy,” as Hobbs described him. He started to have “meltdowns” and would sometimes become mildly violent, because of his frustration with the disruption in his routine and not being able to communicate that.

“I can only do so much,” Hobbs said. “I am not trained in the type of learning that he needs. I am not trained in that type of teaching.”

Elisha Morris, MSAD 11’s director of student services, said the majority of the students that require special services are unable to fulfill their individualized educational program remotely. Programs offered by MSAD 11 include behavior management, life skills and the autism program.

“The remote piece doesn’t work for them,” Morris said. “We have some kids that are non-verbal and some that are visually impaired, and students that need a lot of hand-over-hand support and not able to receive some services in remote.”

Some students with special services are at school two days a week during the hybrid program, she said, while those in cohort D attend four days a week.

The amount of time students with special services spend at school depends on their Individualized Education Program, and a typical day of learning is different for each student. For example, one student may have three hours of math on a remote learning day, while another may only have 30 minutes. The plan is dependent on how much a student can do while at home without their instructor.

“With students that receive special services, they are in it for a reason,” Morris said, “they are the most struggling students.

“Districts are doing the best that they can to make sure we are adhering to district and CDC guidelines, but districts are still limited in what they are able to provide,” she added. “There will be some regression.”

Christina Hobbs, left, and her son A.J. Ricker pose for a portrait Dec. 11, after the school bus brought him back to their home. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The ability to have students learning in person four days a week when the rest of the school is operating fully remotely also depends on the number of teachers available to come into the building.

“We need so many members to be present,” Morris said. “If we have too many staff out, the program can’t run. If students or staff test positive, we can’t bring the program back.”

Earlier this month, at Gardiner Regional Middle School, six staff members were out after testing positive for COVID-19, prompting the district to extend the fully remote learning model until the winter break. On Tuesday, Superintendent Pat Hopkins announced the middle and high schools would continue that way for a week after the break as well.

Margaret Murphy Center for Children, which has a location in Pittston, offers special services for children five days a week.

Director Michelle Hathaway agreed that it has been challenging, with one of the larger problems being finding the staff resulting from absences around the pandemic.

“The staffing has been impacted tremendously,” she said. “To stay ahead, our own staff has to be vigilant in their health.

“If they have a single symptom, they can’t work until they get a COVID test,” Hathaway added. “(Across all centers) We have 450 staff members and on any given day, we are waiting for 75 to be cleared.”

MMC does not accept substitute teachers because of the level of education that is needed to work with the students.

The one-on-one focused instruction, similar to MSAD 11 where an individualized learning plan is in place, even for remote days, becomes difficult for students with learning disabilities, especially those that may be learning to speak.

“We have tried to wear masks with clear panels, but those aren’t great and they fog up,” Hathaway said. “We use them for part of the day. I think kids by and large across the country, have handled the requirements better than the staff has.”

On the public school side, Hobbs and Morris agree that maximizing the amount of time students with special services receive in-person is the best answer — even at four days. Hobbs said that five days would be ideal, because the one day in between is enough to cause a disruption in routine.

“Time will tell and all students are different,” Morris said. “If we don’t see growth in students, I would hope that they would recoup skills lost from the time that we went out in March, that would still be growth in itself, but all learners are different.

“There are home struggles and challenges that we may not know about and that are directly linked to the pandemic,” she added. “Bringing them back in ‘red’, four days a week is certainly a step in the right direction.”

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