Special Education programs have been grappling with the impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic for over three months, and while the State is looking for ways to move back to some level of face-to-face learning come September, it is anticipated that the impact of the pandemic will be felt throughout the balance of calendar 2020 and beyond. Governor Cuomo originally announced that distance learning would continue throughout the summer, and then on June 8, 2020 he issued EO 202.37, allowing districts and independent schools providing special education services (853 schools, 4201 schools, and 4410 schools) to provide in-person special education services as long as proper safety protocols are out in place. This is a change, as education was part of Phase IV, which wouldn’t have occurred in many areas of the State until mid-July and wouldn’t have occurred in New York City until late July/early August. It should also be noted that the EO does not apply to early intervention services and it is unclear how it impacts SEIT services provided at a child’s home or other locations (e.g. a school other than an independent school).
This poses multiple risks to providers:
1.) If classrooms open up during the Summer or Fall, they will do so with the need to practice proper social distancing. This could result in smaller classroom ratios, the need to pivot to a combination of remote learning and on-site learning, additional CDC requirements for testing, cleaning, and equipment, and more. This could result in decreased revenue and increased expenses for many providers.
2.) In order to accommodate on-site operations, staffing patterns may need to change, with programs needing more educational and custodial staff, increased staff trainings, etc. With the budgetary problems that the State and local governments are having, it is unlikely that additional funding will be available to help cover these costs.
3.) Busing is in shambles, with several major busing companies have already filed for protection under the bankruptcy code. With the need for social distancing, there will be a need for increased buses, resulting in increased costs to provide transportation. In addition, it has been common practice for busing companies to comingle students attending different schools on buses. Without proper communication between these schools, there would be no way of knowing if a child from your school was exposed to a child from another school that either has or was exposed to the virus.
4.) Trying to maintain appropriate social distancing with preschoolers and others with special needs will be a challenge. Programs are going to need to develop ways to work with their students, through games, materials, lessons, etc. to ensure that proper social distancing is maintained. Furthermore, programs will need to consider how to control the sharing of toys and educational materials between students. Will each child have their own packet of materials? Will there be an aide in the classroom responsible for social distancing and cleaning? Each program is going to need to assess and determine what works best for them.
5.) PPE is already difficult to get. With schools and other businesses re-opening, it will be even more difficult. Schools will need to stockpile these materials and find a safe way to store these materials.
It could potentially be beneficial with respect to the provision of evaluation services, as providers have been having difficulty providing evaluation services on a remote basis. Without the ability to perform a large level of evaluations, many programs will experience low enrollment during the Fall and it will take some time to ramp up to normal levels. This will further have a negative impact on provider funding and operations.
When you ultimately do reopen your doors (whether that is during the Summer or the Fall), The CDC has established parameters that programs must follow. Programs need to become familiar with them and educate their staff with respect to these regulations. Click here for the CDC guidelines.
In addition, Chris Treiber, Associate Executive Director for Children’s Services at the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies, Inc., developed a guide “Considerations for the Re-opening of Schools” that provides a lot of valuable questions and considerations that providers need to consider as they look to re-open their facilities.
Finally, the New York State Education Department’s office of Facilities Planning continues to provide guidance to schools with respect to safety protocols under COVID.
- If your school has installed, or is considering installing, sneeze guards in areas where staff and students need to have face to face contact. Plexiglass does not meet NYSED or Code standards for fire resistance. As such, the use of Plexiglass in schools is prohibited. An alternative plastic known as polycarbonate may be used when the manufacturer of the product provides test data showing compliance.
The impact of COVID will be felt for many months to come.
Many programs are discussing the balance of the 2020 school year and when it should end. SED has indicated that, contrary to what some school districts are saying, the State has NOT sanctioned early closing of those districts, nor have they provided guidance if the remote learning provided by programs will be considered education days, or not (thus requiring the Governor’s waiver to get programs up to 180 days for the year). SED is aware that some districts are making such determinations on their own, however, they are NOT sanctioned to do so. Consequently, SED is trying to come up with guidance in conjunction with the Governor’s fiscal staff so that everybody can be on the same page about what will or will not be allowed and paid for.
On the reimbursement front, SED sent its proposal to the Division of Budget during April. We are still awaiting answers. The proposal included, among other things:
- A request to have 1:1 aides reimbursed to programs. As of now, there is no clarification as to whether programs will get funded for 1:1 aides or not;
- There is no trend factor proposed for the 2020/21 year. Rates would remain flat. NYSED did request that if school districts receive increases to their school aide, that special education programs get similar increases;
- Continuation of the $8 million Excessive Teacher Turnover Prevention Program (ETTPP);
SED recommended the discontinuance of the reconciliation process. Starting with the 2020/21 year and ending with the 2024/25 year, providers would receive raters each year based off the previous year’s prospective rate trended forward. At the end of the 5-year period the costs incurred by the program would be compared to the revenue received, and as long as the revenue did not exceed the expenses by more than 1% over the 5-year period, there would be no recoupment of funds. If surpluses were in excess of 1%, the surpluses in excess of 1% would be recouped by SED and the new 5-year period starting in 2025/26 would be adjusted by the underspending.
We understand that everyone is looking to get back to normal, whatever that will mean. For the last 3 months, there have been more questions than answers and many of you have spent countless hours trying to reposition your schools to adapt to remote learning brought about by the COVID pause. It hasn’t been easy for you, your staff, your students, and their families. New York State was not prepared for the pivot and, unfortunately programs will be left picking up the pieces. You should all be extremely proud of your ingenuity, your forward-thinking, and your resiliency in developing learning plans that continue to make a difference in the education of the special children you serve. This pivot back will similarly be challenging, but if this pandemic has taught me anything, it has shown me that “You Got This!”
Good luck and best wishes!
Kenneth R. Cerini, CPA, CFP, FABFA
Ken is the Managing Partner of Cerini & Associates, LLP and is the executive responsible for the administration of our not-for-profit and educational provider practice groups. In addition to his extensive audit experience, Ken has been directly involved in providing consulting services for nonprofits and educational facilities of all sizes throughout New York State in such areas as cost reporting, financial analysis, Medicaid compliance, government audit representation, rate maximization, board training, budgeting and forecasting, and more.