A Potential Crisis for Special Education Families?

Across the nation, k-12 classroom teachers have been rightfully praised for quickly adapting to the new normal of virtual education. As tens of millions of students were forced to quickly shift to Google classroom and Zoom and other such tools to finish the 2019-20 school year, teachers adjusted to do the best they could in an incredibly tough, and unplanned, situation. 

For many students, it meant a lighter class load. A single school day broken into two. A shorter learning period. Grades were not to be discussed. And states cancelled their spring state assessments.

Three months into the great coronavirus virtual education experiment, we are now confronting a reality where many states may not have their students return to traditional classrooms in the fall. And in some that do, learners will deal with a “hybrid” schedule requiring some days in a physical building and some days online to ensure the needed social distancing that traditional public schools just haven’t been built to address.

All of that is ok, for the majority of students. We adjusted our expectations. In some instances, it was helpful for parents to see how hard it is to actually teach or to keep their kids on task, providing an eye opener into the realities of instruction. It was a temporary inconvenience that will soon pass. 

That is, of course, unless one is a special education family. As millions of families came to trust and praise their schools for adapting to virtual instruction in the age of corona, many special education families couldn’t overcome their distrust for a system that has taken actions over so many years to deny those with special needs the education to which they are entitled. 

If anything, these school closures may likely cast, in the long term, a nasty spotlight on the harsh realities of special education in the United States. They may showcase our collective lack of interest or commitment, as school systems, on the learners who need those systems the most. And they may, ultimately, do more to advance special education services – through likely class action lawsuits – than we have seen since the initial passage of IDEA. 

Might this seem a little harsh? Yes. Might this be unfair to teachers who are honestly doing their best and are exceeding the expectations of mainstream families? Absolutely. But challenging times cannot and should not absolve school districts from their obligations, and they definitely shouldn’t grant them a pass in challenging times for what they refuse to do during the easy times. 

In my highly resourced, overachieving school district, an email to special education parents at the start of quarantine announced that they were suspending all 504 and IEP meetings until traditional school resumed. Such a decision likely violated federal law. And until state directives forced the district to change course more than a month after it issued such an order, it also could have been seen as an act of educational malpractice. 

For those parents who have spent years engaging advocates and lawyers and spending tens of thousands of dollars on both to ensure their public schools are adequately educating their kids, there is little comfort in knowing that all the accommodations they fought for were tossed out the window in the name of BrainPop videos or Kahn Academy lessons. And that certainly is true as the “temporary” response of this spring is now potentially extended into the next academic year. 

What of the student who needs speech therapy, but whose district fought during the IEP process to deny such services virtually, demanding they could only be provided face to face?

What of the special services department that simply sends families a link to some online occupational or speech therapy activities to do at home with their children, never mind that parents are not trained service providers or may not even speak the language that their child needs the therapy in?

What of the family that fought long and hard for an array of needed accommodations, now to be told that they are all on hold until September or beyond, depending on what decisions the state and locality make?

What of the family already struggling to show that their special needs child is not making adequate gains, only to now be told this past year will be written off (just like the three or five years before it) because of unforeseen circumstances?

Any parent who has even sat across the conference table from the school administration for a 504 or IEP meeting knows what is coming next. Over the years, we have watched the number of people around the table grow, and we’ve seen the binders of data around them get larger, as we’ve witnessed the stonewalling, the delays, and the excuses increase. The administrators who become the adversaries of special needs families are trying to wait it out, hoping enough time passes so that the student is no longer in the school, the OCR complaint is no longer ripe, and a new clock starts at a new school, repeating the process all over again. 

In an already adversarial, contentious relationship between special needs families and resistant school districts, covid-19 school closures became the latest armor to protect systems from their legal and educational duties. 

One only needs to look at the IDEA guidance provided from the US Department of Education at the start of this great experiment to see this unfortunate fact. A whole lot of “mays” and no “musts.” School districts that pivoted to virtual learning only needed to ensure access to the same learning platforms, not to the accommodations their legally binding IEPs required.  

Truth be told, those who have never been through the 504 or IEP process would be aghast. We want to believe that all those involved in the learning process have nothing but the best interests of the child at heart. And while that may be true for the individual teachers involved in the process, it is nowhere near the truth for the system itself. Having sat at that table, having had my school district try to tell me – incorrectly –  that their rules trumped state and federal law when it comes to special education, parents like me are all too aware of the lengths districts will go to restrict their obligations. And we are all too wise as to how a time of crisis and pandemic could be used to deny millions of special needs students of the education guaranteed them under the law. 

Online videos and group chats may work for the vast majority of k-12 students for the past few months or even for the next school year. For those learners, they will make up the learning slowdown over the next few academic years to follow. But for those students who are already behind, for those who have fallen further and further back as their families have been required to fight a system hellbent on denying them, what happens to them? A high school diploma for those learners doing seventh or eighth grade-level work is hardly the reward. 

IDEA protections exist today because the parents of special needs students refused to be denied and refused to accept lesser for their kids. Some may enthusiastically see this covid-19 experience as the gateway to virtual education. Instead, at least for special needs families, it may be the match that reignites the special education community, providing the needed spark to empower parents. 

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