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‘We Don’t Want To Make Any Mistakes’: Staffers Worried About Safety At Reopened Special Needs School

Classroom chairs.
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Some staff at a Holyoke, Massachusetts, school for special needs students are alarmed that they’ve been called back into the building for in-person instruction; they don’t believe it’s safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, or beneficial to students.

The Center School for Crisis Intervention is a private school that serves children — from public school districts — with severe cognitive, emotional or behavioral problems. 

Like most schools, administrators closed the building in March and shifted to online teaching. The school reopened for face-to-face classes in early July — with a long list of safety protocols.

“This is just not anything we've done before, and it's scary because we don't want to make any mistakes,” said one of two staff members at the Center School who spoke to NEPM on condition of anonymity. “It almost makes me want to cry sometimes.”

School director Chris Duff said, in an email, that they’ve been opening the doors slowly, in consultation with the Holyoke health department. He said that only 20% of students have returned, with everyone on a staggered schedule.

“Unfortunately, this is all not so simple and straightforward,” Duff wrote. “There is much to consider including the well-being of our students, our staff and their families.” 

The Massachusetts Department of Education is requiring public schools to submit reopening plans before the fall. But schools that teach year-round, like the Center School, do not need to submit plans for the summer. 

Russell Johnston, associate commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that’s because the number of students affected in the summer is much lower. 

Johnston said students with disabilities are prioritized for in-person education because they gain significantly from being in a school. He said 32 residential schools have remained open since the pandemic began. Other special education day schools are also reopening for in-person instruction, he said, but the state does not keep track of how many. 

‘They wear them, but they don’t keep them on’

Year-round schools are required, however, to meet certain state safety requirements. The requirements say schools should make staff and students wear masks except for health-related exceptions, to minimize closeness with each other, and to make sure the environment is one in which “students, families, and staff feel safe.”

But the two staff members at the Center School said in interviews they definitely do not feel safe. (Both said they do not want to be identified because they are worried about losing their jobs.)

The staff members said students are supposed to wear masks throughout the day, except when they’re eating.

“Well, they wear them,” one staffer said. “But they don't keep them on. And then kids will go to the toilet. And then other kids go in after them and brush their teeth.” 

“We're continually [telling them], 'You know, make sure that's up over your nose.' The minute the mask comes off is when the fear starts,” said the other staff member.

Most students don’t understand how to wash their hands correctly, she added.

Since classes are already small, and only a handful of students have returned, the staff members said there’s enough physical room for distancing, but it’s been difficult to keep students from wanting to be close to each other. Since many have cognitive problems, they don’t understand why they can’t hug their friends.

“It's not fair,” said one staffer. “You see your friend you haven't seen since I don’t know when...And you don't have a real ability to make sense of that in your mind.” 

Both staff members said they would have preferred the school continued with online teaching, or supported home visits to students — which is among the state’s recommendations. The state guidelines said doing so “might alleviate some of the cleaning, transportation, and facilities issues associated with in-person instruction.”

Another similar program in western Massachusetts, NEARI School, is currently offering remote teaching and home visits, but staff are interviewing children and families to determine if they’re able to wear masks and follow other safety rules, according to director Craig Latham. 

Depending on those interviews, Latham said, the school hopes to open for some face-to-face learning in August. 

Two other schools for special needs students in the region, the Mill Pond School and Curtis Blake day schools, are both offering in-person instruction, according to an administrator. 

‘Somewhere between...a prison and a surgery unit’

State reopening guidelines mandate staff trainings in COVID-19 safety protocols, but the two Center School staff members said the online training they received was rudimentary. One said the training module mostly consisted of basic public health guidelines on hand-washing and social distance, plus a handful of questions. 

“The whole thing...took like maybe an hour to two,” the staff member said. “Truthfully, I did not feel that it was any kind of rigorous training.”

They added that the overall climate just doesn’t feel like a school anymore. 

One staff member pointed out that the children are not supposed to play outside for long because they’re not supposed to touch the equipment. They’re not supposed to share toys or use other classroom supplies that require hands-on manipulation. They can no longer go to the cafeteria or to “quiet rooms” that were designed to calm children down. 

“What I feel like is, I'm in somewhere between...a prison and a surgery unit,” the staffer said.

Johnston of the state Department of Education said he’s aware educational staff around the state are nervous. 

“And so, I think there just has to be a new openness with staff...about decision-making, a new level of communication, because I don't doubt the fact that there is concern,” he said. 

He said there already has been COVID-19 spread among staff and students at some schools that have remained open. In those cases, his staff talks with administrators about ways to quarantine those affected and refine safety protocols.

As he hears from the schools already open, “it's not a question of if there will be an occurrence in your school. It's when there will be an occurrence.”

The staff members from the Center School in Holyoke said they are trying to prepare for the possibility of getting sick, and thinking about whether they should stay at the job. Currently they work shorter shifts than usual.

“We feel supported as much as anything can support you,” one staff person said, “but we feel completely unsupported by this scenario.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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