Coppinger proposes extra school year for students with disabilities impacted by pandemic

Nicole Shih
Telegram & Gazette
Classrooms are set up for social distancing for the return of in-person learning at Burncoat High School in March.

Remote learning brought on by the pandemic disrupted the school experience for students throughout the region, especially those with developmental disabilities, like Dan and Andy Wiener.

Twins Dan and Andy Wiener, 21, of Boston, are autistic and blind. 

Both boys attend Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. They are set to graduate next year, because Massachusetts law only provides public school services to age 22, despite the fact that they’ve missed over a year of school due to COVID-19.

Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Edward Coppinger, D-West Roxbury, might give the Wiener brothers — as well as other students whose education has been impacted negatively by COVID, including those in Worcester County — relief and help with some of the learning lost in the past year.

"I presented this bill for local constituents Dan and Andy and their father, Barry," Coppinger said. "They need to recoup this valuable year back and be able to postpone their graduation one year as a result." 

State Rep. Ed Coppinger (D-West Roxbury)

According to a State House News Service report, bill H.3865 filed by Coppinger would allow any Massachusetts student who graduated in 2021 or is scheduled to graduate in 2022, whose parents or guardians "opt-in," to another year of education before they move on to the next chapter of their lives. 

The bill would also allow students receiving special education who will reach age 22 during the 2020-2021 or 2021-2022 academic year — the age students no longer qualify for enrollment in the public school system — to stay in school until they turn 23.

"Due to COVID, many students with disabilities were not in the classroom for 14 to 16 months," Coppinger told the state Joint Committee on Education. "The students who are now due to graduate in 2022 have missed out tremendously on these all-important lessons which would prepare them to exit school and, in some cases, go on to the independent living. There is tremendous stress and trepidation currently upon the families of these students."

Many families are asking for an extra year of schooling for their soon to be 22-year-olds who will be required to graduate if the bill does not pass, Coppinger said. 

Includes reimbursement to districts

The bill also includes a provision for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to reimburse municipalities for eligible costs associated with providing additional educational services to students whose education was negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

“I understand why that bill is put in so that people would have that opportunity to maybe accelerate their learning at the areas that may have not been good in growth this year because of the pandemic,” said Maureen Binienda, superintendent of Worcester Public Schools. “I think students from every district might benefit from it if (it has) funding associated with it because it can't have a large number of kids added back into the system unless (there is) funding to educate them."

The Joint Committee on Education is reviewing the bill and is required to submit a report on it by Feb. 2, 2022. 

It is going through the committee’s vetting process that may include estimating how many students would likely “opt-in” and what the costs associated with it would be. 

The committee will likely discuss the issue with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Coppinger said. 

"The impact for students and their families that choose to “opt-in” for another year will be all positive," he added. 

'No question' student learning impacted

There is "no question" that student learning was impacted during the pandemic, said Joe Sawyer, superintendent of Shrewsbury Public Schools — but it will take time to determine the extent of it.

The school adopted some screening tools that provided initial data regarding which students were performing below benchmarks.  

This summer, they are also offering a new learning academy to students who were identified for targeted support in English language arts and math, in addition to usual summer programs that support students with disabilities and English language learners. 

"During the coming school year, we will continue to closely monitor student academic progress and provide additional supports where warranted," Sawyer said. 

Local children and family support organizations are also able to help students who have experienced learning loss during COVID-19. 

Seven Hills Foundation of Worcester

The Seven Hills Foundation of Worcester provides information, referrals and training in terms of educational and community-based supports to children and adults with disabilities and significant life challenges.

The foundation offers an Individualized Education Program (IEP) training to help with educational plans and transitional support including where to get health screening, where to get help with social security benefits and how to look for the right colleges.  

"A lot of these kids that were 21 are going into adulthood. They're not ready yet because they didn't get that social aspect which a lot of folks with disabilities are already lacking," said Gina Bernard, assistant vice president of family services at Seven Hills Foundation. "We have a lot of folks with mental health needs that are going to take a while to get back into a routine of thing. This fear and the anxiety of being out into a group is heightened at this point."