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9/29/2021 OPED: To serve our children correctly, RI needs more special education teachers
To serve our children correctly, RI needs more special education teachers
By Reps. Julie A. Casimiro and Thomas E. Noret

Earlier this year, when the students and families of the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College feared that they would be losing access to crucial educational services for students who are blind and visually-impaired, a coalition of students, their families, faculty and advocates sprang to action.  Together, the General Assembly recognized the issue and in rapid time, pledged to support the Sherlock Center for 2 years in the state’s budget so that our students who are blind and visually-impaired and their service providers remain together.

The legislature then created a Vision Services Joint Task Force to ensure that students who are blind and visually-impaired are never again threatened with the loss of their highly dedicated special education teachers whom they have grown to rely upon and trust over the course of the educations.

At our first meeting on September 17, a growing threat to this proven and successful program emerged – a shortage of special education teachers. In 2021, 47 states reported having a need to fill vacancies in the area of special education.  Rhode Island has reported teacher shortages in the area of special education, particularly those servicing students with low incident disabilities, since 1998 until present. In 2004, RI General Assembly created a Special House Commission to Promote and Develop a Comprehensive System of Education specifically to address the shortages related to Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs) to address this very issue in Rhode Island. To solve this problem, Rhode Island worked to increase the number of TVIs to serve the children in RI who are blind and visually impaired. In addition, RI ensured that students had access to comprehensive programming by including services from Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMs). In this meeting, the Sherlock Center shared that their program has 10 TVIs serving the needs of our students with visual impairments; however, national shortages continue to exist with many states reporting they have unfilled TVI positions and employment recruitments websites advertising upwards of 192 open positions for TVIs. The task force also learned about the difficultly in replacing orientation and mobility specialists and how this affects the children and their learning.

The staffing challenges faced by the Sherlock Center is just a small part of an ever-growing problem in Rhode Island that needs to be addressed immediately for the sake of our most vulnerable residents. The highest priority need is to grow the population of COMS in RI. Additionally, we need enough Certified TVIs to be able to accommodate the changing needs of students and the future retirements of personnel.  

So, what can we do?

There must be a concrete recruitment and retention plan put into place. There are not enough specialists to serve our children and there is significant concern that not enough is being done to recruit the future generations of these crucial teachers and caregivers.

These are fulfilling careers that allow individuals to truly help others grow and succeed in their lives. We must do a better job of advertising the numerous benefits to entering this career path, with perhaps the state even beginning recruitment programs in high schools across the state. We must also make the educational and dual certification processes for these jobs more accessible to those who are willing and able to perform these vital services for our children.

Make no mistake about it, this is situation that will have a disastrous effect on our special needs students in the future if left unaddressed.  We must correct this problem before it is too late and these children no longer receive the services that they deserve and need.

Rep. Julie A. Casimiro, a Democrat, represents District 31 in North Kingstown and Exeter.  Rep. Thomas E. Noret, a Democrat, represents District 25 in Coventry and West Warwick.

For more information, contact:
Andrew Caruolo, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903