This story was updated to reflect the most recent teacher vacancy numbers.

Leslie Margolis of Disability Rights Maryland is handling eight cases that deal with students who went without special education services due to a lack of staff. Five of those cases are for Baltimore County Public Schools. Now she’s trying to find ways for those students to receive the services they are entitled to.

As students prepare to return to classes later this month, districts across Maryland are facing teacher staffing shortages — with the lack of special education teachers considered a critical problem. The county, with nearly 500 teacher vacancies throughout the system, is short 79 special education teaching positions. The shortage, coupled with students’ experiences from the past couple years, leave parents worried about the coming school year and questioning if their children’s needs will be met.

“I wouldn’t want to be in the school system trying to figure it out, but the law requires kids with disabilities have the services they need,” said Margolis, the nonprofit’s managing attorney.

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Baltimore County school system officials, however, are confident that special education students will get what they need. They remain optimistic even as the Maryland State Department of Education says the county’s special education department “needs intervention,” and despite a 2021 report that says the department cannot ensure efficiency nor functionality.

Of the 111,000 students who attend the county’s public schools, 14% are special education students. Federal law requires that they have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that spells out what services students need.

Baltimore County isn’t the only district where students did not receive their IEP services, Margolis said. The other three cases in her caseload were from Prince George’s County.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare,” she said. “It’s been a nightmare for the families and a nightmare for those of us who do this work.”

One of her clients went six months without a speech pathologist. The child’s mother, who asked not to be identified due to privacy concerns, said she isn’t sure if her fourth grader, who is hard of hearing, was going to get one this coming school year.

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Before the pandemic, the woman said her son had a teacher who worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students and received speech therapy. During the pandemic, things changed. Lessons weren’t as thorough.

Last October, when students returned to the building, the 10-year-old’s teacher left and was replaced by an aide. The boy started to regress, she said. He couldn’t sound out words, began to struggle in math — his best subject — and lost other academic skills.

When a certified teacher returned in April, the boy started to make progress again. Now he’s back to doing well in topics like reading and math.

“It’s evident that he needs someone that’s certified [to be] teaching him,” the woman said.

As the new school year nears, the mother is worried again. If the school can’t provide the services that her son needs, she isn’t sure what’s she’s going to do.

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Part of Margolis’ job is to figure out other alternatives for those families, like suggesting they purchase special education services outside the school system.

“Most of the families we represent are not in a position to do that,” she said. “The only other remedy are compensatory services.”

She also suggested that the school system pay for more outside services that can help families, make it easy for families to find providers, and involve parents more in IEP discussions.

The state education department states that if a child has not received the special education services he or she requires, that child may be entitled to compensatory services. It makes up for skills or progress lost during the pandemic.

The Maryland State Board of Education acknowledged the staffing shortage during a July 26 meeting. There are now nearly 2,000 educator vacancies across Maryland. Special education, with 447 vacancies, was labeled as a critical shortage area. There are also vacancies in non-teaching positions that offer services that special education students need, such as speech-language pathologists and school counselors.

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MSDE annually reviews early-intervention and special education performance at each school district, including whether there’s been a disproportionate impact on students of color with disabilities. Based on the results, districts can receive ratings of “meets requirements,” “needs assistance,” “needs intervention” or “needs substantial intervention.”

“Baltimore County was placed in ‘needs Intervention’ status in years 2021 and 2022,” said Lora Rakowski, a spokesperson for MSDE. The only other district to receive the same rating in 2022 was Baltimore City; no districts were given a “needs substantial intervention” rating this year.

Rakowski said that if a district receives the “needs intervention” rating for two or more consecutive years, it is subject to more monitoring and in-depth data analysis. MSDE and school leadership then develop a plan to make changes. When improvements are made, MSDE steps back, but monitoring continues.

“We’re confident we’re going to meet the needs of our students” this coming school year, said Allison Myers, who heads Baltimore County’s special education department.

Officials will work strategically to address vacancies and will ensure IEP goals are met “without question,” she added.

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The county government last year contracted with Public Works LLC to conduct an operational efficiency review of the system. The 2021 report states that the special education department is “not optimized to ensure efficiency, functionality, and implementation of all aspects of Special Education.” The report also cites a systemic compliance issue.

“Complaints are being filed for infractions that could have been prevented if processes and procedures had been followed,” the report stated.

A June 2020 complaint posted on MSDE’s website states the school system was in violation when Baltimore County did not ensure a 13-year-old with autism would get the support the student needed.

Another concern, the report says, is that IEPs are written to meet a school schedule rather than to address individual student needs. Making sure that IEPs are implemented is also a challenge because assistant principals have too many responsibilities.

The efficiency review recommended that the department reorganize to improve efficiency, design a compliance infrastructure, improve the transition process for the youngest special education students and address staffing. Implementation of most of the recommendations is ongoing.

Emily Mullinix of Arbutus said her daughter thrived in virtual learning at the beginning of the pandemic. But eventually, virtual learning was no longer an option for special education students. She said that if the district had enough teachers, the service could have been provided.

Mullinix said her rising eighth grader needs additional adult assistants to help keep her on track.

“As we all know, it’s very difficult to keep additional adults in the school,” she said.

Mullinix, who worked as a school assistant, has seen the challenges that teachers face and is sympathetic. If teachers were paid better and respected more, she said, the schools would run more smoothly and her child could receive the support she needs.

There isn’t a magical fix, Mullinix said. But a shift needs to happen so more people are attracted to the profession.

A special education middle school teacher in the county said workloads are overwhelming, class sizes are too big and teachers have to use their planning times to fill in for colleagues. The teacher asked to speak on the condition of anonymity out of fear for retribution.

“Things are so bad, administrators have been teaching art four times a day because there are no art teachers,” she said. “There’s no time to do your own job because you’re so busy covering other people.”

Teaching assistants are provided, the teacher said, but the pay is low. And they receive little training to do the work of a certified teacher.

Rene Averitt-Sanzone, executive director of the Parents’ Place of Maryland, a nonprofit, said families are telling them there isn’t always a qualified person providing services. Her organization supports parents of children with disabilities and special health care needs.

“If you’re supposed to have a certified special education teacher and you’re bringing in a substitute, is that child really getting what they need to be getting as it is written in their IEP?” she asked.

There were staffing shortages before the pandemic, she said. But lately, it’s been chaotic. In the county and around the state, there have been delays in evaluating students, kids with behavioral issues are being suspended, and children are being restrained.

“Teachers are not feeling supported,” she said. “Families are frustrated. They’re angry. Then schools are frustrated and angry and it has just become very much a downward spiral of relationships breaking down, communication breaking down.”

She said she feels for the school employees, but believes everyone needs to take a deep breath. School systems should try understanding where families and teachers are coming from.

“And if we keep everything focused on the kid, we can figure this out,” Averitt-Sanzone said.

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