Ryleigh Rattanakoun stopped attending Springfield Schools in fifth grade and has since struggled to find a permanent school that meets her needs. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

Working in special education has never been easy, say advocates and administrators, but two years into the pandemic they are suffering from severe staffing shortages.

Despite an influx of US bailout money and other one-off Covid-related dollars, schools are struggling to find and keep specialist teachers and staff.

“When we started coming back in person, suddenly there weren’t enough service providers,” said Karen Price, director of family support for education at the nonprofit Vermont Family Network. charity that helps families with disabled children.

Early in the pandemic, students receiving physical and occupational therapy, or particularly benefiting from hands-on learning, often fell behind because all services were far away. Still, a return to in-person education has not been the solution many expected.

According to Price, students with disabilities have experienced shortened school days because schools cannot fill needed shifts for an entire day. In other cases, Price continued, staff members who might lack typical training have been forced into specialist roles. In the most serious cases, some students receive no service.

In Springfield, an Education Agency investigation found the district violated the law by failing to provide a fair and appropriate education to a student with multiple disabilities.

School administrators cited staffing shortages as the main cause.

“COVID has led to a reduction in external specialty programs that will accommodate students with special needs,” said Springfield Superintendent Zach McLaughlin. This “has limited the district’s availability to hire staff with the kind of specialized skills needed to deliver certain types of in-house programs.”

Severely disabled students need specialists, and the Education Agency noted that Springfield lacked the “highly qualified personnel” needed to meet the student’s individual needs. Although schools have experienced staffing shortages, specialists have been particularly difficult to recruit, administrators told VTDigger.

The Springfield example came to light following an administrative complaint. Advocates recommend parents try to resolve issues with school officials before seeking state intervention, but unfortunately those initial conversations don’t always yield change, especially recently, according to Price, l attorney for the Vermont Family Network.

Previously, Price said, much of her job was to provide families with special education information and answer relatively simple questions. But since the pandemic, the average call has become more complex, and often the relationship between family and school administrators has already soured by the time the Vermont Family Network gets involved.

“When you have a lack of service providers, some schools say, ‘Well, we just have to think more creatively,'” Price said. “Well, creative thinking itself requires more wealth, more thinking, more brain power, more problem solving. All of that, again, takes time.

As summer approaches, many advocates have turned their attention to extended school year programs — the educational services districts provide during non-school months for students with disabilities.

Rachel Seelig, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project, said she’s seen districts undervalue extended school year programs in the past, a problem the pandemic has exacerbated.

“We’ve had calls from families struggling to get an extended school year (services) for their students because of insufficient staffing,” Seelig said — a comment echoed by Price.

“I hope that the districts that are struggling with this could come together to be able to provide programs in all districts or in all schools to meet these needs,” Seelig said.

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union – which covers Windsor, West Windsor, Weathersfield and Hartland – used federal Covid relief money to pay for a four-week extended school year program called Summer Academy for Recovery. But it’s struggling to find paraeducators to work in the program, according to Katie Ahern, director of student support services for the supervisory union.

“Our support staff are fried,” Ahern said. The district has been successful in slowing quits and retaining more paraprofessionals, she said. But these workers need the summer to decompress.

According to Ahern, Windsor Southeast has had the hardest time hiring specialists such as speech therapists and occupational and physical therapists.

“We haven’t had a single direct candidate this year,” Ahern said, referring to speech pathologists.

As a result, Windsor Southeast resorted to hiring specialists through agencies. Ahern said traveling specialists have been great, but there are downsides. Similar to companies that send traveling nurses to hospitals, these education agencies charge school districts far more than it would cost to hire their own staff, Ahern said.

Ahern says other school districts are facing the same issues.

“None of my colleagues, none of us get bitten,” she said of hiring specialists. “We all have to do agencies.”

Ahern said she shares and receives information about the most affordable agencies with other special education directors.

If an itinerant staff member decides to stay and work in Vermont permanently, the district must pay the agency a finder’s fee. According to Ahern, these fees range from 10% to 20% of salary, or $5,000 to $10,000 for a job that pays $50,000.

Still, paying the fee is often more cost-effective than continuing to use an agency, Ahern said.

Despite staffing challenges, Windsor South East worked on creative solutions. The district has pursued a “develop-your-own” special educator approach, in which individuals with an educational background can receive a provisional special education license if they participate in the required schooling.

The approach has sparked interest among paraeducators looking to advance professionally, Ahern said. Windsor South East is also developing a coaching and mentoring program for special educators to provide support to new teachers, which could further improve retention.

Ahern, herself a parent of a student with ‘intensive needs’, said she and her staff have worked to improve communication with families, acknowledging ‘bumps and bruises’ along the way and explaining plans. of improvement.

“We have explanations. We try not to use things as excuses,” Ahern said. “We are moving forward and we have families who are ready to move forward with us.”

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