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Special education students still catching up

The pandemic caused worse setbacks for students with more needs


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Special education students still catching up

In spring 2020, Jennifer Pellegrini and school officials strategized for her son Leo’s transition to kindergarten in the fall. After a lengthy back-and-forth with school officials during Leo’s preschool years that finally resulted in a diagnosis of severe autism, Pellegrini was surprised that school officials thought her nonverbal son would be able to participate in general education classes the following school year.

But then COVID-19 shut down many schools across the country, including Leo’s in Graham, Wash. With his routine upended and many of his services and therapies canceled or moved online, Leo quickly regressed. By fall 2020, when he would have been entering general education kindergarten, Pellegrini knew it wouldn’t be an option. “He was like a wolverine,” she said. The family put several locks on the front door to prevent Leo from dashing out of the house and into the street.

During virtual schooling for Leo’s kindergarten year, Pellegrini, a stay-at-home mom, stressed over how to get Leo to sit still for Zoom sessions with teachers and therapists. Her son doesn’t watch TV and refused to talk to his dad via FaceTime when he traveled for work. He couldn’t understand that his teachers were talking to him on the screen, much less learn anything. “He would cover his ears, run, bite,” Pellegrini said. “We were all covered in bites and bruises.”

While many students struggled through remote learning during the pandemic, students with special needs were especially affected. As schools work to make up for lost time for students who may have experienced learning loss, students with special needs once again face extra difficulties.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities receive special education services as spelled out in the student’s IEP, or individualized education plan. School districts are legally obligated to provide the services listed in each IEP such as a certain number of minutes of speech therapy each week. When schools are unable to provide those services, many students become eligible for “compensatory services,” a concept not spelled out in IDEA law but often recognized by courts as a legal option.

Selene Almazan, the legal director of the Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates, explained that compensatory services differ from the recovery services that many schools are offering for all students post-pandemic. For compensatory services, schools provide services with the intention of helping a student in special education reach the level they would have achieved if they had not missed out on services they were legally entitled to receive. These services will vary by student: some IEPs mandate tutoring in reading, speech therapy, or behavioral support.

According to a fall 2021 survey released by the council, 86 percent of parents said that their child experienced learning loss at some level during the pandemic.

Maren Christenson Hofer is the executive director of the Minnesota nonprofit Multicultural Autism Action Network, founded by parents of autistic children in multicultural communities. “A lot of teachers went to the nth degree to try and support students with disabilities,” Hofer said. “We understand that schools are in a really difficult position in terms of staffing, in terms of budgets, in terms of COVID recovery, but none of those things negate a child’s right to a free, appropriate public education.”

A June 2021 Minnesota law mandates that parents be included in an IEP meeting to determine the student’s educational needs due to pandemic-related learning disruptions and the best way to meet those needs.

But on June 16, 2022, some Minneapolis parents of students with severe special needs received a memo from the district informing them that their children would be moved to online learning for summer school due to teacher shortages. Hofer said that IEPs are by nature individualized, and the “blanket policy” for this group of special education students pointed to a lack of that required individualization.

Parents and advocacy groups sent a letter to the district on June 21 pointing out that remote learning had not worked for their children during the school year.

Minneapolis Public Schools officials confirmed in an email that about 450 students who receive special education services were switched to remote learning due to staffing issues. “The safety and security of our students and staff were top of mind when the decision was ultimately made,” district officials wrote, adding that the district is working to prevent future staffing issues through partnering with a university program.

Helen Caldart founded SEALK12, the Special Education Advocates League, before the pandemic. The Washington state volunteer organization works with families, districts, and state agencies to determine what educational services work best for each student. “We all should be at the table for the student, not against each other—even though sometimes it gets that way,” Caldart said. The number of parents and districts reaching out to the group for guidance has jumped. SEALK12 used to inform parents that they may not be able to get back to each request within 24 hours. Now, Caldart said they can’t even answer everyone within 72 hours.

According to Caldart, some districts drag their feet about providing services out of a fear that parents will continue adding demands, while others are quicker to work with families: “My question is always, ‘okay, what does the student need, and what do we need to do in order to support that?’”

Some families pursue a due process hearing if their district doesn’t agree to their request for services. In the hearings Caldart has attended, she said judges often decide for compensatory education.

For Leo, Pellegrini said that constant communication with the school district has been key to finding what works. At Leo’s annual IEP meeting that October, Pellegrini talked to district officials about finding some way to get Leo back into the school building. The school agreed, and in November, Leo returned to his classroom four days a week—alone. While in the classroom, he could see his classmates on Zoom.

Last school year, Pellegrini attended weekly Zoom meetings with Leo’s teacher, his paraprofessional (personal assistant), therapists, and a board-certified behavior analyst. “We needed to form the team that was Leo,” she said. She worked to support at home what they were doing at school. The school supported her, too. When the family vacationed at Disneyland, Leo’s teacher recommended he take his school headphones for the airplane ride since he was familiar with them.

This summer Leo attended extended school year and summer school services with his teacher and paraprofessional from the school year. As Leo enters second grade this September, his mom said he is still in a full-time, self-contained classroom.

But perhaps not for long: Last week Leo’s teacher called, suggesting that Leo begin visiting general education classes with his paraprofessional and a classmate during one class period a day. He will probably start with P.E.


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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