‘We have no recourse’: Families still struggling to find placements after Fairfield school closed

Photo of Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — The closure of a school for individuals with disabilities in June has left some families still trying to find an education for their children.

“We were never offered an adequate transition plan,” said Jennifer Iannuzzi, the former vice president of the school’s Executive Parent Board. “Families are still without placement — some of them. The struggles that have gone on and what has transpired for this group. ... We all are still so angry and so hurt about how it happened.”

Giant Steps served 42 students with disabilities and provided programs such as speech, physical and occupation therapy. It closed in June as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The schools founder and president of the Board of Directors, Kathy Roberts, said at the time that the decision to close the school was the most difficult choice the board had ever made.

“It was heartbreaking, for all of us,” Roberts said. “There were people crying at the board meeting.”

Roberts said the Board of Directors never found a strategy that would keep students safe while providing them the education they deserve. She said the risk of people becoming infected with COVID-19 was too great to remain in operation, adding that the board feared the small school could become a hot spot.

“Any of the plans and any of the scenarios that we came up with were just not going to work,” Roberts said this summer. “They all had holes in them. We did have our administrators involved. ... We realized we weren’t going to be able to accommodate what we needed to accommodate to keep our kids safe and our staff safe.”

She said parents and staff expressed it felt like a quick decision, but the board had been discussing how to address the challenges the novel coronavirus posed since February.

Members of the community pleaded with the Board of Directors to keep the school open through letters and a petition, even offering to sign waivers if that made the Board of Directors more comfortable, but the school didn’t budge, the Executive Parent Board said.

Iannuzzi said the parent board understood the Board of Directors was within its right to close the school, but felt like there was no discharge plan for the students.

“We have no recourse after Kathy,” she said. “I get that. But there is a moral obligation to this population.”

Roberts said the school had a number of legal responsibilities it had to address, including returning student records to their respective school districts. She said the school kept an administrator on staff until recently to work with families on planning and placement.

Ashley Garan, another member of the parent board and a Wilton resident, claimed the families were not given the transitions they were promised. She said she doesn’t remember the Giant Steps staff saying a word during a recent planning and placement meeting for her son, Max, which also included the Greenwich School District. Other families, she claimed, were told Giant Steps staff were not available for their meetings.

Roberts said this is not true.

“For over 30 years, I have talked to parents on a daily basis,” Roberts said. “All the parents can call me on any day, Yes, this is a really difficult situation that they’re in and that everyone is in.”

Roberts said she talks to parents who have their children in programs, but are concerned about the health risks associated with it. Parents with children in virtual learning, she said, are finding that it is not working.

“This is a huge problem everywhere,” Roberts said. “Giant Steps wouldn’t have solved the problem. We knew we couldn’t do this well. We knew we couldn’t provide this program.”

With community spread being a prominent issues in the pandemic, including in Fairfield, Roberts said Giant Steps would have been closing every other day for cleaning.

“The more time that’s gone by, the more I feel that we did make the right decision, because we had too many kids coming from too many different places,” she said. “On top of that, we had 80 staff. We had all these different buses with aides from 30 plus communities.”

In light of Giant Steps closing, Iannuzzi said, Hubbard Day School in Greenwich opened and tried to offer the same programming the students previously received. Garan said nine of the Fairfield school’s former students, including Garan’s son and her daughter Sydney, attend Hubbard Day.

Tina Pappalardo, the former president of the parent board, said many former Giant Steps students, such as her son Giovanni, are still displaced.

Pappalardo said the majority of former Giant Steps students are either in a situation where they have been sent back to a district that could not serve them or fighting with a district to find proper placement, including her.

The Colchester resident said her son is at home and not receiving services.

“He has no education, no therapy — no speech, no (occupational therapy) — for the first time in 16 years,” she said. “Insurances are denying services and kind of handing it back to, ‘He should be receiving that (in Colchester schools).’”

For the second time, Pappalardo said, she has had to retain an attorney to fight for Giovanni to receive services. She said many parents with children whose needs are not being met cannot afford lawyers to represent them.

“The parents that are at home right now, they do not have a place for their children to go that’s appropriate,” Pappalardo said. “So, they’re stuck between either hiring an attorney that costs $5,000 just to retain, and then it’s $500 an hour, or, sitting at home and trying to wear many hats and give your child some type of support.”