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100,000 NYC students with disabilities are entitled to classes with two teachers. Will the city be able to staff them?

Bronx special education teacher Brent Nycz.
Craig Macleod

With less than a month remaining before New York City plans to reopen school buildings, a crucial piece of the reopening puzzle remains uncertain: What will teaching and learning look like for students with disabilities?

That question is particularly complex for about 100,000 students who attend classes that are set up to integrate special and general education students in the same classroom and which are required to be staffed by two teachers.

Known as integrated co-teaching, or ICT, the classrooms are essential to ensuring that students with disabilities — ranging from learning delays, speech issues and ADHD — have access to the same curriculum as their typical peers but with the extra support of a special education teacher in addition to a traditional classroom teacher.

Nearly half of all students with disabilities are enrolled in ICT classes, which are meant to provide enough support for students with special needs to learn alongside their typically developing peers, instead of being sent to separate classrooms; students with special needs must not exceed 40% of those enrolled in any ICT class.

But advocates, parents, and educators are wondering to what extent those classes will collapse as schools reconfigure classrooms to account for distancing rules. An additional teacher may allow for fewer students. At the same time, the city is facing a massive staffing crunch, as teachers will have to be stretched between students who attend school in-person and the majority who will be learning remotely on any given day.

As students are spread out between in-person and remote learning, schools may be tempted to move some teachers out of staff-intensive ICT classes, said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children.

“The easy way out is to have the special education teacher teach the students with [disabilities] and have the general education teacher teach everyone else,” Moroff said. “If you have an ICT class and the kids are not learning side by side with all the other kids in the class then they’re getting segregated special ed even if it’s called ICT.”

The stakes for students with disabilities are high, as many have struggled immensely with remote instruction and are at greatest risk of falling even further behind without additional support.

By law, students with disabilities are typically required to be educated in the “least restrictive” environment that gives them as much access to mainstream coursework and peers as possible. ICT classes are one way of achieving that goal and students who have those classes listed on their individual learning plans are legally entitled to them. (Students with more significant needs may be placed in classes that only serve students with disabilities.)

But city officials have not said exactly how special education services, including ICT classes, will be provided. The city’s reopening plan submitted to the state says that special education programs and services will be provided “to the extent feasible.” That language mirrors state guidance and creates flexibility given the unusual circumstances, but some worry it also leaves a lot of wiggle room.

Education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said the city “intend[s] to offer ICT in accordance with all regular requirements” and would not separate students with disabilities from the rest of their classmates. “We are moving quickly and working diligently with our labor partners to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities will be met,” she said, adding more details about ICT classes will be released soon.

In the spring, the city created remote learning plans for all students with disabilities that spelled out how their services might be altered — or reduced in some cases — on account of the transition to remote learning. Officials said similar plans would be created for the fall, but did not say when parents would be informed of which services would be included on them.

Brooklyn mom Josephine Schiele said her sixth grade son struggled with the transition to remote learning and is nervous about what kind of support he will receive this fall. Though her son is strong academically, he has ADHD and struggles with longer assignments or those that involve independent reading. “He was disinterested and overwhelmed,” she said.

Schiele hopes that her son’s school will be able to provide more individual help this fall, but she hasn’t heard much about what his ICT classes might look like and is even considering withdrawing him from school and teaching him at home. “He needs more one-on-one time,” she said.

Teachers who staff the ICT classrooms are also unclear what will be expected of them, whether both teachers will be required to be present for remote and in-person teaching, and whether they will have enough time to coordinate each day.

Before the pandemic, New Design High School teacher Melissa Dorcemus worked alongside a general education teacher, helping keep students on task, answering questions, and facilitating small group work. When buildings shut down in March, the special education teacher would help keep conversation going in her pre-calculus class and monitor questions during live lessons since her co-teacher could not see many of their students’ faces and teach at the same time.

But things are looking even more complicated this fall. Dorcemus is unsure how she and her co-teacher will reach students who arrive in person and the majority of students who will be learning from home each day — either because it’s their scheduled remote learning day or because they have chosen the fully virtual option.

“I’m a little lost on what the fall is going to look like,” she said. “You just need more bodies and I don’t know where they’re coming from.”

Adding to the complexity, Dorcemus applied for a medical accommodation to work from home because she is pregnant. “I don’t know what it will look like if I’m remote, but my co-teacher is in person.” she said. “Would I just be an online support?”

Brent Nycz, a fourth grade ICT teacher in the Bronx, said he is anxious about how he and his co-teacher will conduct small group lessons and help troubleshoot student work all while maintaining 6 feet of distance.

He’s also wondering whether the two 30-minute planning periods teachers will have each day will be enough, especially if he is also teaching students who are at home in addition to those in person — or coordinating with a new set of teachers who are providing remote instruction.

“‘If you’re collaborating with teachers on a completely different way to do things,” he said, “that’s not a sufficient amount of time to do something remote well.”

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