Candice Kowalski, of Meriden, pulls her sons, Harrison, 7, left, and Evan, 5, in a wagon as they leave their apartment complex covered under a light blanket, Thurs., Jul. 16, 2020. Like many children on the autism spectrum, both Harrison and Evan have an aversion to wearing face masks. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

School reopening especially daunting for students on autism spectrum

A special report by Matthew Zabierek, Record-Journal staff, July 26, 2020

School reopening especially daunting for students on autism spectrum

School reopening especially daunting for students on autism spectrum

reporter photo

As with many children on the autism spectrum, 7-year-old Harrison Vega and his 5-year-old brother, Evan Vega, have an aversion to wearing face masks.

An in-depth series looking at how autism impacts us all.
​​​​​People diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD, can be highly sensitive to touch, particularly to the face, so wearing a mask can create unpleasant sensations for Harrison and Evan Vega, both students at Hanover School in Meriden.

“I have to put them in a wagon and cover their heads with a blanket because they won’t wear a mask,” the boys’ mother, Candice Kowalski, said about taking her sons out during the pandemic.

Kristen Guido, a 6-year-old Hanover student diagnosed with ASD, is also “freaked out” by anything covering her face, her mother, Angela Guido, said. Her daughter “is just getting to a point where she doesn’t scream her head off when she sees other people wearing” a mask.

The state’s school reopening guidelines require students to wear masks while in school or on the bus, raising questions for some parents of students on the spectrum.

“I think it’s completely unrealistic, but I also think it’s dangerous to have her not wear one, so as parents, we’re going, ‘What do we do?’” Angela Guido said. “… That’s the part with autism is there’s a lot of quirks and a lot of unknowns, and it’s hard because you don’t want to come across as whiny.”

The school reopening plan acknowledges that some students may not be able to wear masks for various reasons, according to Bryan Klimkiewicz, director of the state Department of Education’s Special Education Division. “There are other mitigation strategies that will be used in these circumstances,” he said.

Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski, Meriden’s director of special education, said the district will work with each family individually to address issues with masks. In some cases, the district may issue an exemption and put other preventative measures in place.

“That’s probably the primary concern that families have,” Sullivan-Kowalski said about masks. “… I think the longevity of the day is a concern for many parents.”

With next month’s presumed reopening of Connecticut schools rapidly approaching, mask aversion is just one of the concerns weighing on parents of students on the spectrum as they decide between three imperfect options — sending their student back to school, continuing on with distance learning, or some combination of the two.

Under the state’s reopening guidelines, each family is being given the choice, and local districts are in the process of polling families to see how many will continue with distance learning.

Kristen Guido, 6, blows bubbles with mother Angela outside their Meriden residence, Mon., Jul. 13, 2020. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

A Quinnipiac Poll released July 15 found 31 percent of respondents nationally think it’s safe to send students to elementary, middle, and high schools this fall, while 62 percent believe it’s not safe.

“I don’t want to have to choose between my daughter’s education and her life,” Guido said about the ambivalence she’s feeling. “Education needs to realize that the special needs population with sensory issues, it isn’t that we don’t want to send our kids back. We know how this virus is transmitted, and if my daughter isn’t protected, what am I supposed to do? That’s the question that a lot of us feel like we’re waiting to see.”

Guido, a stay-at-home mom of two, “100 percent” plans to continue distance learning with her daughter this fall.

“I can catch up with learning. I can’t catch up if she gets COVID and dies,” she said.

Close contact, limited staff

Students with autism often work with and come into close contact with staff members throughout the day more so than general education students, raising questions among parents about how students will be able to safely work with staff. Guido’s daughter, for example, needs help throughout the school day with simple tasks like going to the bathroom and opening her lunch.

Klimkiewicz addressed the concern by saying adults working with students will be “employing mitigation strategies.”

“Educators are being asked to maximize social distancing where possible, but in circumstances where students need close physical proximity for instruction and safety, other mitigation strategies should be employed,” he said.

Candice Kowalski, meanwhile, pointed out there is a limited number of special education support staff at each school, meaning those staff members will be working with students from different “cohorts,” or small groups the state is requiring students to remain in to limit their contact with others. Sullivan-Kowalski said support staff will work with students “one cohort at a time.”

“Staff may go to different rooms (cohorts) but must minimize if possible and utilize safety protocols and measures when doing so,” she said.

To address reopening concerns raised around special education, the Department of Education is working on a “Fall Reopen companion document for students with high needs,” according to Klimkiewicz.

As administrators across the state sort through potential reopening issues for special needs students, Dr. Cristine McNaney, neuropsychologist and associate director of evaluation services for the Wheeler Clinic, expressed optimism.

“Kids are incredibly resilient, and kids on the spectrum are as resilient as any kid,” McNaney said. “So I think that they’re capable of making adjustments. They surprise you every day, so it may be the adults that have more difficulty than the kids ultimately.”

‘Soon didn’t come’

Though the state’s back-to-school plan makes some parents uneasy, they say distance learning has also introduced a whole host of other challenges for students with autism, causing them to fall behind in some cases. Students on the spectrum exhibit repetitive patterns of behavior and covet familiar routine, making the unforeseen changes brought on by the pandemic especially difficult to manage.

“Anything sudden or anything that alters a routine is particularly difficult for folks on the spectrum,” McNaney said. “Having things be predictable, reliable, and dependable is so important.”

Kowalski’s 7-year-old son, Harrison, “only does certain things at certain places,” and has a hard time learning anything new at home, she said.

Harrison Vega, 7, plows a toy Titanic through pieces of a number puzzle during playtime with mother Candice Kowalski at their Meriden residence, Thurs., Jul. 16, 2020. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

“If he goes to my mother’s house he will only eat certain foods or play with certain toys at her house,” Kowalski said as an example. “School is where he learns, and at home, it was very hard. He would not look at the computer because he only uses the computer at school. So I would have to take everything off of the computer and handwrite it onto a dry erase board.”

Guido’s daughter had a hard time processing the sudden change to remote learning and thought she was on Christmas break at first.

“I’m not going to lie, it was brutal the first couple of weeks,” she said. “We were provided with packets immediately, but it wasn’t the academic part. The initial shock was, ‘Wait, I was just told see you tomorrow, see you soon.’ But soon didn’t come.”

A portion of Meriden students have already returned to school buildings for summer school classes, Sullivan-Kowalski said. When students returned for their first day of summer school, it was clear many really missed the structure of school and their teachers.

“When the kids came back, they didn’t want to leave that first day,” Sullivan-Kowalski said. “... They didn’t know if they would be allowed to come back the next day,” because that’s what happened when schools closed in March.

Varied experiences

The success and experience of distance learning varied greatly among students and families depending on a number of factors, including where a student fell on the autism spectrum and their limitations.

“Personally, I think that what we’ve learned from this is special education is very, very individualized,” said state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, who’s had a focus on issues related to autism during her seven terms. “There are some individuals who could do the distant learning, and there were others where it was very challenging for them.”

"There are days where there is no time for learning... We are his family, not school. Some days were better than others and on the weekends we tried to play catch up. Sometimes we gave up and felt like we failed him."

-Nicole Nolan

Tracy Hussey, Cheshire’s director of pupil personnel services, said distance learning feedback she’s gotten from special education families has been “primarily positive.” But she noted that Cheshire, unlike some other districts, was able to “hit the ground running” because it already had the necessary technology and infrastructure in place.

Sullivan-Kowalski also gave a positive assessment in Meriden.

“I think the families and teachers remained in close contact and were able to work through any issues that came up. I think it worked the best it could have,” she said, adding that feedback from families will be “the most important step” going forward.

“Listening to how the students did during distance learning and how the students and families were during the summer will only help us better transition the students into the new year with new procedures,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Despite the best efforts by teachers and staff to adapt and accommodate families, families with two parents who work struggled to find enough time to help their children who are not able to work independently.

“It was definitely a struggle,” said Nicole Nolan, whose 6-year-old son, Robert, attends Hanover. Nolan and her husband just had a newborn and both work during the day, leaving little time to help their son with school work at the end of each day.

“The assignments came out like crazy on Mondays, and I finally learned to just turn my phone off or I would be so overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden,” Nolan said. “By Wednesday, typically I was able to sort through them, but we could never complete them all.”

Nolan’s son, who will enter the first grade this fall, fell so behind that she at one point considered holding him back a year.

“There are days where there is no time for learning,” Nolan said. “The routine and structure were not there. We are his family, not school. Some days were better than others and on the weekends we tried to play catch up, sometimes we gave up and felt like we failed him.”

Candice Kowalski, a single mother, had to leave her job as an optical technician at an eye doctor’s office to take care of her sons after her time off at her job ran out. She’s currently working a seasonal job while she looks for a permanent job elsewhere, but she fears what will happen if her sons are not able to adapt to the back-to-school restrictions.

“If they don’t go back to school, I’m not going to be able to go back to work,” she said. “I may have to move in with my parents.”

Regardless of how the reopening of school goes initially, McNaney of the Wheeler Clinic cautioned “folks are going to need to be prepared for the need to suddenly transition again if there is a spike.”

“At least this time, we might have the opportunity to prepare kids for that possibility,” she said.

Lack of social interaction

Beyond the direct instruction and support they lost not being in school, students with autism lost out on opportunities to practice and develop social skills while at home and not integrated with other peers. The lack of socialization in some cases would have been a welcome change for students who become anxious or distracted from social stressors in school.

“Autism is a disability that is grounded in a lack of social reciprocity,” said Hussey, Cheshire’s head of special education. “So much of what we try to do is social skill related — trying to build language, social skill appropriateness. So I would say when you’re providing that type of instruction through a computer, you lose that personal, intimate capability to connect with people.”

“I think for this particular population, it was more challenging than for anyone because not only did they lose that connection at school, they also lost those services they were getting in the home."

-State Rep. Cathy Abercrombie

Each special education student has what’s called an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, that describes their areas for improvement and the accommodations and support services they will receive. Teachers and staff, Hussey said, tried to follow each student’s IEP as closely as they could during remote learning. But in cases where a student had been working on how they interact with peers, it became harder to progress at home.

Staff at Hanover, for example, had recently been working with Kowalski’s 5-year-old son, Evan, who she described as a “perfectionist” and “extremely smart,” on not yelling out at other kids when they didn’t know an answer in class.

“He lost so much of those social skills that we’ve been working very hard with,” she said.

The lack of peer interaction was compounded by no longer receiving therapy from private, in-home providers like speech and occupational therapists, who stopped providing in-home services due to concerns about COVID-19, Abercrombie said.

“I think for this particular population, it was more challenging than for anyone because not only did they lose that connection at school, they also lost those services they were getting in the home,” she said.

During the pandemic, Abercrombie has been meeting with various state agencies to discuss the challenges and issues facing the autism community. The social isolation created by the pandemic is a big concern, she said.

“Kids on the spectrum, part of their disability is depression. Now you’ve got these kids that have been socially isolated, and it’s not due to anyone’s fault, but (they’re) not understanding why they don’t have their school support team there, who they have a relationship with, and ‘Oh by the way, why am I not able to see my peers?’”

Sensory room

Parents of Hanover students said their children were disadvantaged at home not being able to use a “sensory room” at Hanover where students could go and calm down during the day. The sensory room, which is part of the school’s STARS (Students and Teachers Achieving Remarkable Success) program specifically for students with autism, is filled with equipment and instruments like kickboxing bags, a bubble machine and yoga balls that give students a calming sensory outlet.

“A lot of them can’t regulate their bodies themselves. They can’t take sensory information and process it correctly, so it’s hard for them to focus and learn,” Kathy Romania, the school district’s head of occupational therapy, told a reporter during a visit to the room in February.

“By doing this, it gets them that sensory input in a way so that they’re regulated, and they can listen and pay attention longer.”

On that February day inside the sensory room, a group of students with autism gathered around in a circle to gleefully bounce on yoga balls as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” played in the background. After the warm up was over, the students broke off to use and share equipment with other students. Eight-year-old Ashley Laboy went straight for a swing that teachers say helps calm and orient students by activating their sense of balance. Ten-year-old Nowell Mas-Rivera continued to bounce on a yoga ball to the beat of his favorite music — heavy metal.

“We let him pick which songs he wants, sometimes it’s Kidz Bop, sometimes it’s heavy metal,” behavior technician Nicole Ritchie said as Mas-Rivera played the air drums to the music.

“I think he likes the bass so he can bounce to it,” she said.

Without the sensory room to use during distance learning, Guido, a Hanover parent, said she’s tried making up for it by giving her 6-year-old daughter a yoga ball.

“After certain lessons, she would just want to be left alone to roll her belly on the ball — every day, two or three times a day,” she said.

Other parents have had less success helping their children process frustration at home. Kowalski tried to recreate a “calm down corner” her 5-year-old son, Evan, uses in school. But her son got so angry one day that he destroyed the tent area she set up for him.

“His physical outbursts have been very bad since school has ended,” Kowalski said. “You can’t yell because me yelling doesn’t change how he feels. He doesn’t understand, ‘Mommy’s yelling, what does that mean?’”

Even when students return, Nolan worries they won’t be able to use shared equipment in the sensory room due to safety protocols. Sullivan-Kowalski said the district is still figuring out how to handle access to the sensory room.

“That would be a huge thing for the kids, because they go back to school and they know what that room is, and to go back to school and not have that available to them, would be crushing for them.”

Rise in autism

The sensory room at Hanover reflects how school districts over recent years have adapted and expanded special education services to meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum.

Romania and her sister, Heather McDonnell, Meriden’s lead physical therapist, founded the sensory room five years ago in a former kindergarten classroom in response to steady increases in students with autism. Since then, “we’ve had people from all over the world come to see our room so they can create something similar,” according to Romania.

“We said, ‘What is a need that these students have, this population that we have?’” Hanover Principal Jennifer Kelley said during the February visit.

The number of students diagnosed with autism in area school districts — Meriden, Wallingford, Southington and Cheshire — has more than doubled collectively over the past decade — from 228 students in all four districts during the 2007-08 school year to 522 in 2018-19, according to numbers districts submit to the state on their annual Profile and Performance Report.

The upward trend far exceeds growth seen in almost any other disability category recorded by school districts, including intellectual disability, learning disability, emotional disturbance, speech/language impairment, other disabilities, and other health impairments, which include attention deficit disorder.

“Even people who believe they are familiar with education are surprised by it,” Southington Superintendent Tim Connellan said about the rise in autism in an interview earlier this year.

From the 2008 to 2019 school years, Connellan’s district saw an increase of 57 students with autism, to 121. In that time, Meriden’s autism population increased from 64 to 203, Wallingford’s increased from 67 to 119, and Cheshire’s increased from 40 to 79.

The local trends reflect larger state and national upswings in autism prevalence seen in recent decades. According to the latest analysis done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018, one in every 59 children born in the U.S. was identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or 1.7 percent of all children. That rate has proliferated over the years, from 1 in every 150 children, or 0.66 percent, estimated by the CDC in 2000.

“I’ll be at the gym or in yoga class and people will ask what I do,” said Leslie Macnab, director of the nonprofit Autism Services & Resources Connecticut in Wallingford, “and when I tell them, never once have I not heard something like, ‘Oh my son has autism’ or ‘My nephew has autism.’ Everybody knows someone that’s been affected.”

Broad range of conditions

Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as a neurodevelopmental disability that can cause a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Because autism is a spectrum, characteristics and limitations of those diagnosed can vary greatly. Approximately one-third of people with autism are nonverbal, meaning they can’t communicate through speech, according to Autism Speaks, the country’s largest autism advocacy organization.

“It’s such a difference from one extreme to another, it’s almost like it’s a completely different disability. One can look almost nothing like the other,” said David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks.

Research to date has not been able to pinpoint the causes of autism, according to the CDC, but experts believe there are likely many different factors that make a child more susceptible, including environmental, biological and genetic factors.

The consensus in the medical and education communities is that improvements in detection and awareness are also probably at play. Autism stands out among disabilities for its broad spectrum of behaviors and symptoms, which parents and professionals are developing a keener eye for, school administrators and medical professionals said.

“We’re getting a lot better at picking up on the different behaviors and signs,” said Dr. Sara Schoonover, program director of the Wheeler Clinic’s Autism Diagnostic Evaluation Program.

It’s also possible symptoms of autism may be becoming more accentuated by increasing academic and social pressures placed on young children, said Dr. Jim Loomis, a child and family psychologist and the director of adult services at the Center for Children with Special Needs in Glastonbury. Loomis is also a member of the state’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Advisory Council.

“There are a whole lot more electronics, organized sports, and group activities, and less free play time,” Loomis said about the life of an average child today. “There’s a greater demand to be able to process information, to be able to function and socialize within a group. In the past, it may have been that kids with autism were there, but it was just easier to grow up without these kinds of skills that are hard with children with autism… Kids with autism do fine with unstructured free play, but if they’re in a group and there are social demands and they have to follow certain rules, they don’t do as well.”

While it’s possible “autism has always been there and now we’re just finding it,” Loomis said it’s also possible other factors, including environmental and nutritional changes, could be altering “genetic codes” over time to make children more susceptible.

Most scientists agree genes are one of the risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop ASD, and ASD has been found to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, according to the CDC. Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but is about 4 times more common among boys than among girls, the CDC says.

There has been concern among some parents about a possible link between childhood vaccinations and autism, however, that theory, Loomis said, has been ruled out by extensive research.

Loomis is optimistic the current upward trend will eventually taper off, but adds, “if they do keep going up, then I think we have to look more and more” at environmental and nutritional causes.

In the meantime, school districts need to continue adapting to meet the need.

“Since no one really has been able to identify the cause,” Connellan said, “we’re faced with looking at the situation from the point of view of, ‘This is the status.’”

‘It’s expensive’

Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought on a new wave of challenges in March, school districts over recent years had been financially challenged to continue serving growing populations of special education children within their operating budgets, administrators said in interviews conducted prior to the pandemic.

“I think across Connecticut what you’re seeing is annually special education costs are taking up a greater percentage of the budget which means that special education costs are outpacing other costs,” Cheshire Superintendent Jeff Solan said in an interview in February. “You’re continually shifting funding for other things to cover special education. And if you ask superintendents around Connecticut they’ll tell you” that’s a point of concern.

In its 2017-18 school budget, Cheshire spent just over $17 million on special education, or 24.2 percent of its total $70.3 million education budget. A decade prior in 2007-08, the district spent $12.1 million on special education, 22 percent of overall spending.

“Even though our enrollment in Cheshire has gone down, our special education percentages have gone up,” Hussey said.

Southington’s special education spending also rose in that same time, from $17.2 million to $27 million, and Wallingford’s jumped from $18.3 million to $25.7 million.

“It’s really important for people to understand these are all things that we have to do for children, we want to do for children. These are some of our most vulnerable students,” Connellan said about special education in February. “It’s expensive, but that’s just how it is right now.”

Administrators anticipate the need to comply with reopening safety guidelines will have an impact on special education costs going forward.

“I think that the PPE itself, making sure that we can appropriately clean work areas, the face shields and the masks and making sure we can continue to supply those to the faculty that are working with our kids is certainly an added expense that we didn’t anticipate,” Hussey said. Because some families will opt to continue distance learning in the fall, districts may also have to hire additional staff to teach kids both in and outside of schools, she added.

Education officials in Meriden told the city’s Board of Education this month that their plan to reopen schools is estimated to cost $2.3 million. The plan, which has to be submitted to the state Department of Education, isn’t specific to special education and includes provisions for 10 additional teachers, three more school buses, and 32,000 disposable face masks for students.

“This is a fluid situation,” Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni said. “Things continue to change based on health data. This is the best plan we have at this point in time. We can’t answer all the questions. We can answer some of those other questions as time goes on.”

For students with autism specifically, Hussey said the district may need to ramp up the support they’re offering students in some cases to help them make up for what they lost during remote learning.

“There’s a population of students within our autism spectrum who have very unique needs, and when they return, based on how they return, we may need to look at doing things differently for them,” Hussey said. “And that in turn can also be a financial cost for us because it may be that, for example, we need more counseling or we might do additional (speech therapy sessions).”

To offset the additional costs of educating special needs students this school year under the pandemic restrictions, districts will be able to use some of their allotment from education aid set aside in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

According to the state Department of Education, the CARES Act funds are not specifically meant for special education, however, the four primary areas for use are: equitable access to technology; equitable access to high-quality online curriculum; education recovery and reopening school; and social and emotional well-being.

Schools may also receive additional aid for reopening as part of the next economic rescue bill being negotiated in Congress. President Donald J. Trump has asked Congress to include $105 billion to facilitate school reopenings in the package, the Associated Press reported this week. Trump said funds would help schools reduce class sizes, hire teachers, rearrange spaces, and provide masks. But if a local district doesn’t open, Trump wants the money to be steered to parents so they can pursue other education options.

Shifting services in district

Over recent years, area school districts have tried to control growing special education costs by shifting more resources and services in district and, in turn, outplacing fewer students.

“The best way to reduce costs is to create situations where you can program effectively and efficiently for students in district, then you don’t have to worry about out-of-district placements,” Connellan said. When the school system can’t meet a student’s needs, it sends the student to another public or private school and pays all costs for tuition and transportation. On average, area administrators said it costs between $80,000 and $180,000 to outplace a single student each school year, which adds up to millions of dollars annually.

"It’s such a difference from one extreme to another, it’s almost like it’s a completely different disability. One can look almost nothing like the other."

-David Kearon, Autism Speaks

In some cases, boosting in-house programs can mean finding the necessary space and hiring more support staff to run and monitor the programs — behavior technicians, social workers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, and board-certified behavior analysts. In other cases, schools were able to train existing staff on how to better meet the needs of students with disabilities.

These in-house supports come at a cost, but administrators said it’s much cheaper when compared to outplacing. Southington, for example, earlier this year conducted a cost analysis which found that new special education programs the district has created in recent years save roughly $3 million annually. The programs, which cost about $2 million annually, have allowed Southington to keep 41 students in district who would otherwise have needed to be outplaced, according to Connellan. At an average outplacement cost per student of $130,000, it would cost roughly $5.3 million to outplace those 41 students, according to Connellan.

“That’s over $5 million that we would have to have in our operating budget right now just for those out-of-district costs,” Connellan said in February.

Following a period of special education increases from about 2007 to 2011, Meriden was able to buck the upward trend seen in other districts in part through a concerted effort to build up its “continuum” of in-district services, according to Sullivan-Kowalski.

Meriden made the move to bring more services in house years back after an external audit of the district’s special education operations and outplacement facilities found Meriden was dependent on out-of-district resources and contractors. The district’s total special education spending decreased from $31.2 million in 2010-11 to $29.4 million in 2016-17, according to reports submitted to the state.

Beyond financial savings, Meriden’s audit also found keeping elementary-age students in district led to better outcomes for students and would give the district more ability to monitor programming quality.

Staying close to home and integrated with regular education peers is especially beneficial for students with autism, who already struggle to socially connect, said Aimee Turner, Wallingford’s head of special education.

“When you outplace a student, they don’t have the opportunity to make those connections, because they’re not with their peers and they’re not in the community,” Turner said.

Solan, Cheshire’s superintendent, agreed.

“Putting students on a bus 45 minutes to somewhere is something we try to avoid, especially with students who have special needs,” he said.

State, federal aid falls short

As the cost to educate special education children has dramatically grown over decades, administrators said the state and federal governments have effectively shifted more of that cost onto local districts by not increasing their contributions accordingly and failing to provide once-promised funding levels.

In 1975, Congress originally enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, mandating a free and appropriate public education for eligible children with disabilities. At the time, Congress pledged to fund 40 percent of the additional costs to educate special education students. In other words, if a school district spends $10,000 to educate a general education student on average and $25,000 to educate special education students, the federal government promised to cover 40 percent of that $15,000 difference, or $6,000. The grants are made to the states, and the states issue the grants to local school districts and administer the grants.

While the 1975 law laid out how much funding was authorized to be appropriated, the 40 percent figure only serves as a guideline, not a guarantee, and since the legislation passed 45 years ago, Congress has never come close to appropriating 40 percent funding. From 1988 to 2018, the federal government only once provided more than 18 percent funding for “Part B, Section 611” of IDEA, which provides funds for children ages 3 to 21, according to a 2018 report published by the National Council on Disability (NCD) titled “Broken Promises: The Underfunding of IDEA.”

In Fiscal Year 2019, Congress provided funding for 14.3 percent of additional special education costs under Part B of IDEA, according to an August 2019 report published by the Congressional Research Service

“That’s wrong,” Connellan said about the underfunding of IDEA. “That’s a promise that was made and was broken.”

Over the decades, educators and advocates have made many pushes to fully fund IDEA, and although the idea has received support from both sides of the aisle, none of the numerous bills to fully fund IDEA have ever been passed by Congress.

Aid provided by the state government also began falling short years ago when legislators put a cap on how much they allocated for the state’s Special Education Excess Cost Grant, one of a couple of state special education funding sources.

In cases in which services for a special education student cost more than 4.5 times their district’s per-pupil average, the state under the grant program is supposed to reimburse the district 100 percent for every dollar they spend above that threshold, referred to as “the basic contribution.” For instance, Connellan said Southington spends about $15,000 per student on average, so their “basic contribution” would be around $68,000. In that case, the state is supposed to reimburse Southington for every dollar spent on a student after $68,000.

In recent years, however, the legislature has put a “cap” on how much it appropriates for the grant program, allowing the reimbursement rate to fall to around 65 to 70 percent and requiring districts to pick up the rest of the costs through their general education budgets or raising taxes.

“When you then multiply that lost reimbursement times the number of students for whose expenditures the district is eligible for reimbursement,” Connellan said, “it can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars that are lost reimbursement to the district.”


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