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Hillsborough Co. parents with special needs students pushing to go back to classrooms

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HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA)- While many Hillsborough County parents have expressed concern around re-opening schools, a group of parents with special needs students say, in-person learning is the only option for their children.  

As the Hillsborough County School Board waits to vote on a decision to bring students back to the classroom or to provide an e-learning system, Katie Beirne is fighting on behalf of her son’s education.

Logan Beirne

Beirne’s son Logan has special needs, including Epilepsy. Bernie says e-learning and distance learning isn’t effective for her 12-year-old.

“How can you do physical therapy through Zoom? It’s a joke. We have the right for our students to get a free appropriate public education and if they don’t offer us the chance to go back into school… they are being left behind,” said Beirne. “They’re discriminating against our special needs kiddos. They’re awesome kiddos and they deserve the chance to learn.”

Beirne, along with other concerned parents, have now formed Facebook group, ‘In-School intention: Hillsborough parent support group’.

“There’s lots of ESE teachers who know that they cannot provide IEP (individualized education plans) services through e-learning. So, it’s a great group of parents who are trying to find ways to get their voices heard, because truthfully, it’s kind of scary to speak out like this, because a lot of times it seems like we’re in the minority. But if you look at the numbers and if you look at the actual results of the surveys, it’s a majority of parents and teachers who are willing to send their kiddos back,” said Beirne.

Earlier this month, the Hillsborough County School District directed parents to fill out a declaration of intent, asking them whether they would like their child to return to a traditional brick and mortar classroom, e-learning, or virtual school.

As of July 20, the school board had received a total of 110,418 responses. 

The results show 49.31% chose on-site learning for their kids. Just over half of parents chose either virtual learning or e-learning for their students: 41.94% selected e-learning while 8.75% chose virtual school.

Brooke Pellow 

Jennifer Pellow is advocating for her 10-year-old daughter, Brooke.  

Brooke was born 24 weeks premature and has Cerebral palsy, Epilepsy and an intellectual disability. Currently, her education requirements include physical, occupational and speech therapy services.

“I want them to know that they need to vote in a way that accounts for every single student in Hillsborough County, not just the ones who have stay at home parents, typically functioning bodies and brains, everybody needs to be considered. They’re leaving a lot of people behind.”

Pellow tells WFLA.com, she’s also confident that there will be enough safety measures in place, if she sends Brooke into the classroom.  

“There were safety concerns before Coronavirus and there will be after it’s gone,” said Pellow. “I don’t want her to get the flu. I don’t want her to get COVID but I’m confident that with a mask and with her small class size that she will be safe.”

William Spinks  

Ed Spinks an attorney, is now focusing on educational law and how it pertains to his son, William Spinks.  

William is a 9-year-old child with Down Syndrome and according to his father, William doesn’t have the capability to do e-learning. Spinks specifically states that his son has trouble with speech articulation and notes that when interacting with teachers online, there is a communication barrier.

“The law knows that one size fits all solution, doesn’t work for our kids with disabilities,” said Spinks. “To try and force them into a box and learn the same way everybody else does, takes it back to the 1950s, before we had the Americans with Disabilities Act. Before we had the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and before two schools were mandated for the IEPs. So, this is just a way that makes the parents and the children feel discriminated against.”  

Isabella Smith 

To the dismay of many but unlike special needs student’s parents, the Hillsborough County School District plans to reopen schools on August 24.  

Several Hillsborough County School Board members have expressed concern about the health of staff and students, should they return to classrooms. They’re hoping during the next board meeting, other members will support an e-learning plan. 

Kelly Smith, who’s husband teaches eighth grade in the district, says e-learning is ‘just ridiculous.’ 

“One decision is being made for a group of students who have such a diverse range of abilities,” said Smith. 

Smith also has a growing concern about e-learning because of her child, Isabella.  

Isabella is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury and suffers from epilepsy and ADHD. 

“She is the sweetest thing but she cannot sit, even, you know, talking to the teachers that she loves more than anything and follow instruction, unless she is constantly prompted,” said Smith.  

So what’s the solution for the Smith’s? Well, in short, they don’t know.  

“I don’t see an answer for Isabella. I don’t see much that she will be able to do in terms of progressing. She’s already regressed majorly,” said Smith. “It’s laughable to think that we’ll be done with this in nine weeks. It’s terrifying to see what might happen, if she’s not the recipient of what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen she needs specifically.” 

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