Report on Meriden schools’ mask policy prompts SDE review, strong local criticism



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MERIDEN — State officials are reviewing a report indicating local schools violated the rights of 21 students with disabilities by not allowing mask exemptions last school year, while local officials continue to strongly dispute the findings.

Sarah Eagan, the state child advocate, outlined four recommendations for the State Department of Education in her findings regarding Meriden schools earlier this month. 

Eagan recommended SDE conduct its own independent on-site investigation, address concerns about remedial compensatory services, and monitor the district for compliance with special education law requirements. 

The Office of the Child Advocate’s findings included a further recommendation to ensure all school districts’ policies comply with requirements to provide disabled students access to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environments. 

SDE spokesman Eric Scoville confirmed the department “will be reviewing the findings and recommendations contained therein and will work with the school district to address any issues related to the provision or denial of in-person instruction to Meriden students.”

State Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities Deputy Director Cheryl A. Sharp also confirmed the commission has received the OCA report, but said she was unable to discuss any specific case.

The state review comes amid sharp criticism from local officials, who maintain the decision to impose the mask mandate was one of several measures that enabled Meriden Public Schools to successfully conduct in-person learning throughout the entire 2020-2021 school year. 

At no point did local school officials institute full remote learning in any school building across the district. Other urban school districts in the state did have to take those measures. 

School Superintendent Mark Benigni, in a statement to the Record-Journal, said district leaders “are surprised and deeply disappointed by the report of the OCA.

“At all times, we followed the advice of the Meriden Health Department, which consulted with the State Department of Public Health,” Benigni wrote. “Its directive was clear — children attending school in person must wear masks. By following that directive, the Meriden Public Schools were one of only a handful of districts to have consistent in-person learning and a full array of sports and music programs all last year.”

Benigni stated further that local officials “reject the criticism of the Office of the Child Advocate of the Meriden Public Schools for following the advice of the public health professionals. At the direction of these public health experts, and in accordance with the Governor’s executive orders, we have required that children wear masks.”

“For those children whose disabilities caused them difficulty in complying, we worked closely with parents, teachers and public health officials to develop appropriate mitigating strategies that eventually permitted all students to return to in-person instruction,” Benigni continued.

He added, “By so doing, we achieved great success in a most challenging time, and all children in Meriden, including those with disabilities, were able to participate in in-person instruction to a far greater degree than those in other urban school districts.”

‘Unwarranted’

Benigni described the OCA’s targeting of the local school district as “unwarranted,” adding it “needs to stop.”

“I ask OCA to tell me — whom I should ignore? The Governor? The public health experts? Our students and families are counting on the Meriden Public Schools to provide the best education possible for their children, and in ongoing collaboration with our public health officials, we will continue to provide a safe school environment for all students,” Benigni wrote.

Board of Education President Rob Kosienski Jr. similarly took umbrage with the findings. He also referenced the district’s overall success in keeping its buildings open for in-person learning. He said the district is committed to supporting students.

“Our commitment every day is to ensure that every kid has an exceptional educational program in the Meriden Public Schools,” Kosienski said. “We are committed to providing extra help needed to address the needs the child may have — and we’re committed to that.”

Kosienski noted the district will use COVID-19 relief funds it has received toward those efforts.

“No student is being left out. Every student’s needs are being addressed,” Kosienski said.

CHRO warning

Sharp said the CHRO received a number of complaints against districts across the state alleging failures to accommodate students.

So the commission issued another “Dear Colleague” letter to district leaders statewide last month which reiterated a similar letter the commission issued in 2020. The Sept. 24 letter, cosigned by CHRO Executive Director Tanya Hughes and Sharp, explained to leaders that schools and other institutions that receive state funding are required by law to engage in an interactive process to ensure individuals with disabilities receive reasonable accommodations.

Hughes and Sharp wrote that the issue of mask wearing requirements has been repeatedly raised and warned against blanket mask mandates.

“While public health is of utmost importance during a pandemic, a blanket policy regarding wearing masks may violate the state or federal civil rights of an individual with a disability,” the letter stated. “... There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem which is why discussion, thoughtfulness and innovation are required. The key here is that the school or district must accommodate all of these competing needs in order to comply with state and/or federal law.”

The letter included a list of suggested reasonable accommodations local educators could provide.

Parent reaction

Parents of two children who were among the 21 involuntarily placed into remote learning continue to have concerns, they said in interviews with the Record-Journal.

Jona Jeffcoat said her son Zachary, now 10, is back in a classroom and the district is honoring the mask exemption, but other COVID-19 mitigation measures have essentially isolated him from peers. For example, Zachary must sit behind Plexiglas.

Jeffcoat also questioned whether her son is receiving adequate compensatory services to make up for the academic learning loss and social regression he experienced during remote learning. New concerns about her son’s behavior have emerged, she explained.

Jeffcoat said before the pandemic her son had been achieving at grade level, but has now fallen behind. She said educators have refused to answer questions about her son’s academic progress. In one example, Jeffcoat explained her son now struggles to write legibly, despite having made previous progress in writing.

District officials declined to comment on Jeffcoat’s concerns, citing federal education privacy laws that prohibit them from discussing individual cases.

Another parent, Bobbie Kish, whose now six-year-old son Max was placed in remote learning, said her son is thriving. His initial teacher is working with him once again and he has a new speech therapist.

“Max is thriving again … he’s learning a lot,” Kish said.

But it was a difficult road getting there. And Kish said she wanted district officials to make sure their neediest students are taken care of, without the parents having to aggressively advocate for them.

“The laws are in place for a reason. They should follow them. They shouldn’t need parents to call them out on it and publicly shame them to get their job done,” Kish said.

‘Hard issue’

At one point, the Department of Children and Families got involved after Kish and her husband had conveyed concerns to their son’s school about his behavior. A school employee reported the family to DCF as a suspected neglect case.

The caseworker who responded determined that report to be unfounded and worked with the family.

Eagan, the child advocate, did not address that incident in her findings. She told a Record-Journal reporter that while she was aware of that situation and had reviewed it, it was beyond the scope of the overall systems report.

Eagan said because school district employees are mandated reporters of suspected abuse and neglect cases, it can be difficult to determine when it is appropriate to report when children are disengaged in school.

“And sometimes districts can get in trouble because they don’t report enough. Sometimes districts report too much. And getting that right is hard,” Eagan said, adding that “overall it’s a hard issue for school districts and there’s not a lot of margin for error.”

Eagan said she would never discourage a district from making a report if they have a concern about a child’s safety. But when a matter arises where a child becomes disengaged from their learning, she said districts should “put some footwork in” before making a neglect or abuse report.

Not an excuse

The district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed as of Oct. 7, at least 50 students across eight school buildings had quarantined because they were close contacts to COVID-19 cases.

Outside of Meriden, state special education advocates like attorney Andrew Feinstein have reviewed Eagan’s report. Feinstein is affiliated with Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut, or SEEK-CT. He said the findings “got it absolutely right.”

“The recommendations they made were the right recommendations,” Feinstein said. “These kids have to have their missed services remediated.”

Feinstein explained that SEEK-CT has seen a number of instances throughout the state, not just in Meriden, where districts have denied providing services agreed to in planning and placement team meetings referencing the pandemic as the reason for denying them.

“The state needs to be much more aggressive to ensure COVID is not used as an excuse” for denying children the services they need, Feinstein said.

mgagne@record-journal.com203-317-2231Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ



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