Preschool registration hits snag under new rule | News, Sports, Jobs

LISBON — As the Columbiana County Educational Service Center prepares for the 2022-2023 school year, a new rule regarding special education in preschool classrooms is making the registration process a lot slower this year, superintendent Anna Marie Vaughn said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

CCESC preschool supervisor Melissa Puhalla said parents have questions. “It’s putting a stop on our registration,” she said. “A lot of parents are calling us right now asking if they have a placement. We want to place them but we can’t guarantee where they are going to be until we figure out if classrooms are full or not, so it’s different in the past where we would just be able to put a kid in the classroom and that’s where they are staying for the whole entire time when we start.”

Preschool Special Education Rule 3301-51-11 went into effect last July. According to information on the Ohio Department of Education’s website, the purpose of the new rule is to ensure that all children with disabilities residing in Ohio between the ages of three and twenty-one years, inclusive, including children with disabilities who have been suspended or expelled from school, have available to them a free appropriate public education, as provided by Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

A departmental overview of the rule describing the state’s vision for preschool special education stated, “Each young child with a disability is challenged, prepared and empowered for his/her future by having access to an inclusive high-quality early childhood program where each child is provided individualized and appropriate support in meeting high expectations.”

Puhalla said that in the past, the majority of the preschool classrooms were considered public school preschool special education classrooms. “In the past we used to have 50 percent students with disabilities and then 50 percent typical developing students in the classroom and they were able to be taught by the intervention specialist who was already in the classroom.”

She said previously the main classroom teacher was the intervention specialist and would be able to service the students with IEPs as well.

Puhalla said under the new rule, if the classroom is not 50/50 at all times, then the preschool special education teacher is not allowed to service their own students and will require additional staff.

“So if the classroom is considered a preschool special education classroom and you only had, for example, four students with disabilities that were identified on the IEP, you can only have four typically developing students in that classroom which makes it a max of like eight kid,” she said. “In the past you could have that four students with disabilities plus you could still have eight typically developing children and you could have at least 12 kids in a classroom.”

Puhalla said as the year progresses and students are identified who need to be evaluated, the new rule will complicate matters. In the past, she said, teachers could add students in that qualify as a student with a disability, or in cases where they go from being a typical to a special education student, they would still have a spot in the class. “Whereas now, whatever they are identified at the beginning, it stays and it always has to be 50/50 at all times,” Puhalla said. Puhalla said the rule limits the class size unless it is changed to a general education classroom, which would then require extra staffing to service disabled students. “So the state is almost encouraging classrooms to be all general education classrooms where you could have students with disabilities in there,” Puhalla said. “However, that looks at bringing in either an intervention specialist separate to service the students or utilizing occupational therapy, physical therapy or speech as your intervention specialist.”

Besides the cost associated with creating a need for more staffing, travel time for employees will be another added expense. “You may be able to share buildings but then the staff members have to travel from building to building,” Puhalla said.

As far as where the additional funding would come from, Puhalla said it will require creativity. “That’s another barrier that the districts are looking at but the state hasn’t really provided any guidance because there is not extra funding,” she said.

Puhalla said the CCESC has not received clarification on the reasoning for the new rule. “I’m trying to speculate,” she said. “I’m thinking maybe flexibility or allowing students to come and go to where if you label your classrooms a different way, but then they also say you should have a continuum of services in your district so you should have multiple types of classrooms in your district but basically they’re making harder for us to offer those other types of classrooms.”

The change will affect the students on a day-to-day basis as preschools try to maintain the new 50/50 ratio, Puhalla said. “If the student is either identified or a student moves or a change of the classroom happens, then you would either have to withdraw a student or try and find a student that may not be available to add into the classroom in order to keep the 50 /50,” she said.

In the instance where a family moves away from the area, Puhalla said then that it will disrupt the classroom ratio and consistency for these preschool-aged children is a big concern for her. “Not even just the students with disability but a typical child, if that’s their routine, that’s their schooling, that’s their teacher, they know what the routine is everyday,” she said. “Then telling them the next day, I’m sorry but you have to go to a different classroom or you might have to go to a different building, so that will disrupt everyone’s plan.”

Puhalla said other areas in the state have been written up for noncompliance and had to write corrective action plans. Vaughn said they have not been audited at this time, but they are waiting. She said she has heard many districts have said they will not comply with the new rule. “Other districts have indicated they are not going to do that,” Vaughn said. “It doesn’t make any educational sense.”

Meanwhile, Puhalla said the CCESC is trying to see which classrooms could be kept the same as they are currently based on enrollment so that the preschool special education classrooms’ teachers can remain responsible for all their own students. “If we are unable to do that we are going to switch to general education classrooms but then we have to modify every single IEP to either reflect who is going to be responsible for [disabled students] or bring in an itinerant teacher to serve all those IEPS,” she said. “It’s going to be a busy summer.” Puhalla said the CCESC is currently working with the Ohio Department of Education and has done surveys with all the ESCs in the area. “They shared that survey with the Ohio Department of Education and they are working with them right now,” she said. She said she is unsure if the ruling will be amended, but said any changes will likely not take effect until the next school year. “They did mention in a meeting I was at that it takes at least six months to even discuss changing it,” Puhalla said. “So we would already be into the next school year if they even discuss changing it or actually changing it into law, how long it would take, almost probably a school year.”

Vaughn said she expects to continue to hear about this into the next year and said that she is sure there could be some negotiations that can take place that would solve the issue. In the meantime, they wait. “We will keep you posted,” she told the board. “We’ve gathered information from across the state and presented it and now we are waiting for additional responses to see what can be advised.” Puhalla said the CCESC is trying to find ways to comply with the new rule with minimal disruption to students. “We are trying to be clever and collaborate with some other counties and districts and just to come up with some creative ways to be in compliance if they do come around,” she said. “Getting kids in there is our main goal. You don’t want to turn them away because if you turn them away, they may turn away forever and you’ll never see them in your districts. They might go to other schools.”

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