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Learning to cope

Jordyn Brown Eugene Register-Guard | USA TODAY NETWORK

Lane Education Service District has a serious shortage of special education staff this school year, forcing it to reduce the number of days it can provide in-person instruction for students. h This issue is a symptom of a larger staff shortage problem for schools and the workforce at large right now, which is prompting employers to raise pay, actively recruit and create other incentives for new hires. But without enough staff to serve some of those with the highest need, the local districts have had to make cuts to weekly instruction for those students. h “We are unable to provide adequate staffing in order to operate five days a week, and so we’ve had to implement a framework of each of our classrooms in the Life Skills program closing one day a week, and then dispatching the staff in those rooms to help out staff and other rooms,” said Director of Special Education Sue Mathisen for Lane ESD. “That’s been a really difficult decision to make, but the alternative was just not tenable. We didn’t have enough staff.”

Program changes

Lane ESD operates programs, in partnership with school districts, for students with intensive support needs on behalf of all the districts in Lane County, Mathisen said. The programs are housed, for the most part, in district buildings, with

See STAFF, Page 3A

“Another thing that complicated things this fall was the vaccine mandate that affected the schools.”

Sue Mathisen

Director of Special Education for Lane ESD

Eleven-year-old Ben Trout, left, enjoys a snack with his mother Cassandra Trout after school in Creswell. Lane Education Service District has a serious shortage of special education staff this school year, forcing it to reduce the number of days it can provide in-person instruction for students. CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD

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specialized Lane ESD personnel.

Life Skills, for example, is a program run by Lane ESD that serves students with intellectual disabilities. Lane School, another program, is for K-8 students with social-emotional disabilities.

“We employ a large number of staff to support the students in both of those programs, and districts refer their students to these programs if they need that level of service,” Mathisen said. “So both populations require a high level of support.”

In the case of the Life Skills students, many are medically fragile and have physical support needs as well, she said, so having highly trained staff and a high staff-to-student ratio is important.

Typically, the ratio is one adult for every two students, with 80 instructional staff members. There are about 175 Life Skills students between in-person and online. This year, they only have about 50 or 60 staffers, Mathisen said, and that is still fluctuating.

“That’s just not a safe situation for us, which is why we’ve had to had to reduce the number of students that we serve on a daily basis,” she said.

Earlier this year, Lane ESD had to scale it back to two and three days a week, but staff came together and worked out a way operationally to bring it to four days before school began.

The low numbers are attributed to a few compounding factors, said Mathisen and Tony Scurto, Lane ESD superintendent. Some positions still are open from retirements or resignations. Last year, when everything went remote, they had to scale back staffing, and it never fully bounced back this school year.

“Another thing that complicated things this fall was the vaccine mandate that affected the schools,” Mathisen said. “We had a small number of people … who chose not to get the vaccine, and so we lost some some staff in that regard as well.

Students, parents coping

When Cassandra Trout, parent of a student with special needs and special education teacher herself, found out the original plan to scale back to just half of the days in person, she called everyone she could.

“The day before school start started, we got an email that said, actually your child’s only going to be able to go two or three days a week and the rest of the time is going to be on Zoom, and we’re going to have a rolling schedule, which meant it wouldn’t even be consistent every week. … I was like no, absolutely not. Find something else,” she said.

“That’s when it landed on one day a week, consistent schedule, which again, is not ideal, not legal according to his (individualized education plan), but it is what it is right now and we’re working through it.”

Her 11-year-old son, who is in fourth grade, is nonverbal with profound hearing loss, she said. He also has cognitive challenges. They usually work with him on verbalizing by communicating through pictures and images. All of these aspects make virtual learning ineffective for him, she said.

He’s also very routine-based, as many students who have specialized needs can be.

“So him going with me to drop his brother off at school when he cannot go to school is a royal fit. Brother gets out of the car, we close the door, we drive away and it’s screaming and crying and not understanding,” Trout said. “It’s hard emotionally as a parent, just because he loves being at school.”

Lane ESD staff saw and understood this response from parents, which is why they worked to at least do four days in person.

“I think (parent) response was primarily, ‘This is not right. We want a full week’ … and we agree with that,” Scurto said. “We’re continuing to work toward that. I think one of the things you’ll get from parents is the issue of, we’ve got our regular education kids back as much full time as we can, and we want the same.”

Scurto said the same issue is going on in other school districts across the county. “So it becomes one of those deals where we all want folks. We’re not trying to steal (staff) out of 4J classrooms, out of Springfield classrooms, but we’re not turning folks down. The need is there all across all K-12 schools.”

Individualized teaching is crucial

Lane ESD has been recruiting and offering signing bonuses for up to $500 for new staff and existing staff who referred them.

Speaking from her experience, Trout said the shortage of staff has been overwhelming this school year.

Students can have a wide range of physical and academic needs, such as working and cleaning feeding tubes and specialized communication methods.

“So it’s not like you can have any assistant from any elementary school or any middle school come in and just sit put them in there and say, ‘OK, here you go,’ “ she said. “It requires a lot of specialty training. It requires a lot of behavior strategies. There are a lot of behaviors that come with special education.

“My son is not excluded from that — he will just lie down and not move. … They have to know how to be able to work with these kids with highly specialized needs. And, unfortunately, we’re having instructional assistants leave all the time.”

In order to be an instructional assistant for Lane ESD’s special education programs, all someone needs is a high school diploma to apply.

The education service district will handle training people if hired, Scurto said.

Trout said it’s also necessary for people to have an open mind about how to best work with kids and teach them, since they all have individualized strategies.

“I don’t know how this is going to end,” she said of the shortage. “I just I keep hoping that there are some moms or dads out there that all their kids are in school now and they’re looking for something to do during the day because our kids, they just need someone to love them and be willing to learn how to work with them and how to communicate with them.”

Those interested in learning more should visit lesd.k12.or.us. There are openings in Eugene, Springfield, Creswell and Cottage Grove.

Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at jbrown@registerguard.com or 541-2464264, and follow her on Twitter @thejordynbrown and Instagram @registerguard.

Eleven-year-old Ben Trout, right, plays catch with his dog Koda as his mother, Cassandra Trout, watches the fun in their Creswell home. Lane Education Service District has a serious shortage of special education staff this school year, forcing it to reduce the number of days it can provide in-person instruction for students.

CHRIS PIETSCH/THE REGISTER-GUARD

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