Monday November 21, 2011

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A need for more occupational therapists in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union was brought to the school board last week through one’s resignation.

In her resignation letter, Catherine M. Armani-Munn said the 75-student caseload both she and the only other occupational therapist have is "unmanageable" and exceeds laws of some states that limit caseloads to 50 students. In Vermont there is no maximum caseload occupational therapists in schools may have.

"This size of caseload limits the therapist’s ability to consult appropriately with support staff, offer opportunities for collaboration with other staff members, provide appropriate accommodations to students in the school environments, allow time for evaluations and screenings, and to provide any preventative type services in regular education," wrote Armani-Munn, who began in July. "For these reasons I professionally feel that I need to find employment elsewhere."

The school board hired Jane Conde to replace Armani-Munn, whose last day is Nov. 23. The board has also approved the addition of a 0.4 OT position that will be filled to work two days a week to ease some of the burden of high caseloads.

Kathy Buck, SVSU special education director, said she has been aware of the need for additional OT services since shortly after the school year began operating with a new OT model. The plan to hire a part-time position was already in the works prior to Armani-Munn making the need public with her resignation.

This school year SVSU has had two full-time OTs after recent years contracting services of two part-time OTs and two OT assistants. Buck said the new system has been more efficient, even though caseloads are oversized, because there were duties the assistants could not conduct.

The supervisory union has tried to ease the burden of the high caseloads by putting students in groups of two or three when they work with an OT, Buck said.

"Before, they were seeing lots of kids one-on-one, and we’ve asked them to do a better job of grouping kids," Buck said.

Superintendent Catherine McClure said the supervisory union will also consider whether additional OTs will be needed next school year as it creates the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Once the part-time OT position is filled that person will likely handle their own caseload, although the schools they will serve may depend on a recommendation from the occupational therapists after Conde is settled.

Students who require OT services have disabilities that interfere with their ability to perform daily life activities or participate in necessary or desired occupations.

The part-time position will likely focus more attention on consultation and preventative work so the youngest students who are at risk of requiring OT services in the future may be able to avoid it.

Still, Buck said, 0.4 may not be enough help beyond this year. Ideally, she said, each OT would have a caseload of 40-50 students.

The supervisory union has already begun a job search for the position, which will be grant-funded, although Buck said it is often difficult to find occupational therapists in Vermont.

"It is kind of a hard position to fill. It seems like all over the state of Vermont there’s a lack of OT services," Buck said.

Part of the reason for that, she said, may be because many schools only employ part time OTs, which isn’t desirable for many people in the profession.