UPDATE 7/28/2020: After releasing this statement, Mr. Dempsey reached out to Ms. Cades to apologize, explaining that decisions made in on-air production were beyond his control (such as leading with footage from the parent protest) and were made after he submitted his report from the interview. We thank Mr. Dempsey for following up with SEPTA and appreciate the further context that he provided.
Yesterday, SEPTA President Michelle Cades received an unsolicited cell phone call from Tom Dempsey of WUSA9 in which he said that recently he was learning about the challenges facing families of special education students and that he wanted to talk about this issue for an on-air interview. SEPTA has long felt that the concerns of our community have been left out of the greater conversations regarding education during the pandemic, so we were pleased to have the opportunity to shed some light on the diverse issues our community is facing.
While the written article is more representative of the interview with Ms. Cades (click for original on-air story), SEPTA is disappointed that WUSA9 chose to edit the on-air story to make it appear as though she and SEPTA were only supporting a return to in-person instruction for special education students. That is not the totality of what Ms. Cades said, nor is it the position of SEPTA. Students receiving special education services do not fit neatly into any one basket – they represent a wide spectrum of needs and considerations that must be taken into account in the return to school discussions. Ms. Cades specifically told Mr. Dempsey that the “I” in “IEP” stands for Individualized and that the needs and solutions for our students are as diverse as the population itself. As such, SEPTA, as a member organization of Virginia PTA, supports their position statement on the Phased Reopening of Schools: “Virginia PTA prioritizes the health and welfare of students, staff and families and supports reopening plans that provide high-quality education, are community-centered, practical, feasible and meet the risk tolerance level of individual communities.”
While we do understand – and agree – that in-person education is incredibly important, and that virtual learning was incredibly difficult for many families with students receiving special education, we also understand that there are many families of students receiving special education services for whom an in-person option is not the best choice for their family. This may be for a variety of reasons ranging from pre-existing medical conditions to concerns about virus spread to the gains from the increased structure in the virtual program. Additionally, there are many students whose disabilities manifest more in a school environment and who actually thrived in the virtual learning environment. Ms. Cades also emphasized to Mr. Dempsey that SEPTA represents teachers (and related staff) as well as parents and that it is important to the organization that the concerns of school staff are taken into serious consideration during return to school planning.
It is also critical to highlight the difficulties of providing the necessary 1:1 supports that many students with disabilities require while also keeping our teachers safe. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) – in their July 12th video representation of the Return to School options – released this image of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom would be wearing, as many students in this class require significant hands-on assistance. Students in these classrooms are often the students most likely to have pre-existing medical trauma due to their sometimes more complex medical histories. One child of a SEPTA board member saw this image and immediately typed on her Augmentative & Alternative Communication (AAC) device – “afraid, afraid. I afraid doctor.” The conversations around the mental health of students have not yet recognized the traumatic impact that spending hours in a classroom with a teacher in this PPE can cause for this population of students, even if those students are also the students who need to receive in-person instruction.
Ms. Cades also shared in her interview (but it was not included on-air), that SEPTA appreciates that the FCPS School Board and Administration are continuing to focus on the needs of students with disabilities in their planning. SEPTA has a representative on the FCPS Return to School Task Force, and continues to actively advocate and collaborate with FCPS leadership for the needs of our entire community. Ms. Cades also specifically shared with Mr. Dempsey that she is excited to learn of the hiring of a new Asst. Superintendent of the Department of Special Services, Dr. Michelle Boyd, and that she and SEPTA are looking forward to continuing to partner with FCPS and Fairfax County Council of PTAs to ensure that the needs of all students with disabilities are taken into account during the planning for return to school.
When interviews are edited for soundbites to support one specific view, there is a loss of acknowledgement of the broad spectrum of needs and concerns that exist for the special education community. SEPTA represents, as stated by the parent affiliate National PTA®, “everychild. onevoice.®” We are disappointed that WUSA9 chose this opportunity to foster division by misrepresenting our position, rather than using balanced reporting to build community and increase awareness by recognizing and shedding light on the wide spectrum of needs within the special education community.