More District 75 public schools serving special education students will open for 5-days-a-week in-person instruction beginning January, a Department of Education official said Wednesday, as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to prioritize in-person education for the youngest and most vulnerable students.

About 3,250 kids attending District 75 schools for students with special needs are currently going to in-person class five days a week, said Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor for Early Childhood Education and Student Enrollment at a City Council hearing Wednesday.

When school resumes after the winter break on January 4th, there will be another 6,900 students able to attend school five days a week in D75, about 80% of the total 12,500-student enrollment for District 75 schools, he said.

Currently only 3K, elementary, and District 75 schools have been reopened for in-person learning, after de Blasio closed public school buildings and transitioned all students to remote learning on November 18th once the seven-day average of coronavirus test positivity rates in the city hit 3%, his long-promised threshold for closing school buildings.

The school year during the pandemic has been especially challenging for kids with disabilities, and the issues go beyond offering in-person schooling, said parents and officials at a joint education and women and gender council hearing Wednesday on the city’s Learning Bridges program, which offers supervised childcare for kids in 8th grade and below engaged in both hybrid and remote learning.

“District 75 students face huge hurdles accessing the Learning [Bridges] programs,” said Manhattan Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

“Remote learning has been extremely challenging for students with significant disabilities and their families. The Mayor promoted Learning Bridges as a way to help students and families when students cannot be in school. To live up to its promise and to comply with the law, the City must provide the support needed to include students with disabilities in Learning Bridges programs,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children.

There are 43,600 students on Learning Bridges' rosters at 450 sites, Wallack said. Of those, 10,000 are students with disabilities. The actual daily numbers of students at the childcare centers fluctuate with families’ needs, he added. About 50,000 families total have applied for slots.
“Our goal is to meet the demand and make an offer to every family that has reached out to us," Wallack said. "We’re on track to do that by the end of the calendar year."
De Blasio has said he plans for the program to eventually accommodate 100,000 kids.

But parents have said students with disabilities have had an especially hard time accessing slots and getting the services they need at the Learning Bridges.

“I am not certain we’re meeting the need,” education committee chair Councilman Mark Treyger said, calling access to the slots "uneven."

One challenge has been providing the same level of services that students with disabilities get in school. “We did not set up a program with the full resources of the Department of Education,” said Susan Haskell, Deputy Commissioner from city Department of Youth and Community Development, which is administering the Learning Bridges program in coordination with the DOE.

Some of the community groups and nonprofit partners who operate the Learning Bridges are asking the city to increase reimbursement rates for these services so they can hire additional staff to provide students with disabilities more of the support they need.

Some of the Learning Bridges sites are under-enrolled, while others can't accommodate all the families seeking slots, according to Gregory Brender, Director of Children & Youth Services at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents many Learnings Bridges providers. "It really differs neighborhood by neighborhood," he said.

The city needs to do more for these de-facto school centers for young students, advocate Randi Levine said.

“Although the City is giving priority status to students with disabilities in selecting students for the program, the program has no resources or process for providing accommodations and supports to students who need more support than the staffing ratio currently funded by the City," Levine added.