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May 15, 2020

FAST Program: Serving WV's Children

Our FAST Program is one of many that has seen a shift in its work due to COVID-19. The program, which is an acronym for Family Advocacy, Support, and Training, works primarily with school-aged children and their families on special education needs in West Virginia. Any family with a child with behavioral or mental health disorders can seek their services.  Non-attorney advocates work with families, school staff, and service providers to get adequate services and accommodations in place for students through Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) or 504 Plans.

With school closures across the state, the logistics of their work and the needs of West Virginia’s families have changed. FAST advocate Laura Turman, who works out of our Martinsburg office, has provided some insights into how she—and the clients and schools she works with—have been affected by the new in-home education reality. 

Laura and her fellow advocates are still attending school meetings with parents; they just look different now. Meetings take place by phone or video platforms like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Even though children are receiving their education at home, schools are still responsible for meeting students’ individualized special education needs.

Laura says one of the first things she noticed was how variances in services have been exacerbated by new operation standards. Administrators and teaching staff approach education plans and special needs differently from county to county; now, those practices have been sent into a greater state of flux. “We see a magnified inconsistency in how people are interpreting the directive from the state about how to provide special education services,” she says. “In many cases, I don’t know who’s going to get education records to me. I called one school, and the principal answered the phone. I wasn’t expecting that, but he was very accommodating. Then, I’ve tried to reach other schools and heard nothing.”

While schools adjust to at-home learning, families in the program are, too. Laura explains she has some clients who are thriving at home. “Parents of children who have had trouble focusing or who get in trouble a lot seem to be stressing less. They can keep an eye on their children and don’t have to worry that their behaviors will result in a suspension.” 

On the flip side, some parents are not getting the structure and support that has helped their children succeed. These supports include help from specialized therapists and in-person attention of teaching staff and aides. Add to the equation many parents are working from home in addition to caring for their children, and you can see how it might be difficult. 

Our FAST advocates are not discouraged. “We’re trying to be reasonable in our expectations,” says Laura. “We are asking ourselves and each other: What are reasonable accommodations that could be provided to families at this time? Check-ins? A list of exercises to do at home? We’re trying to avoid regression while children aren’t attending school and seeing regular service providers.”

One way or another, counties are determined to meet needs. In one particular case, Laura says a Berkeley County IEP coordinator received permission to deliver food directly to families. And our FAST advocates have been working with each other and the rest of the Legal Aid staff to help with arising issues, which Laura doesn’t expect to slow down.

“I think there will be a wave of need,” she says. “People at home with their children may see a possible gap in services, and if they’re seeing those things firsthand, such as a child’s inability to focus for more than just a few minutes at a time, they might be inclined to reach out to us for help. Additionally, those children that haven’t had to adhere to a classroom setting might need more accommodations going back. I think some of our evaluations will be out of date so schools will need to consider new evaluations.”

Laura says another important piece of the puzzle—data—might need to be reviewed. Parents, unless directed to do so and given the tools to track data themselves, are likely not tracking progress or regression with the same meticulous eye that therapists and special education staff do. “When students go back to school, there’s a lot of adjustment that will need to happen.”

If you or someone you know is interested in services provided by our FAST program, you can apply by phone at 866-255-4370, apply online, or visit the FAST Facebook page for more information. 


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