As schools across the nation face the beginning of a new year, there are many hurdles to jump. One high one is ensuring students with disabilities get the services they need, rather than make due with what little was given at the start of this pandemic.
Federal law requires schools to provide children with disabilities a free, appropriate public education whenever and wherever schools are operating. According to NPR, “an estimated 14% of public school students (over 7 million) receive (special education) services in the U.S.”
How has this worked during a global health crisis?
When the coronavirus forced schools to switch to distance-learning this last spring, programs serving students with special needs had a tougher time shifting by a long shot — one-on-one in-person support is central to serving their demographic.
Many advocates and parents understood that a little flexibility was needed while entire programs pivoted mid-stride to keep up with new government regulations and health guidelines.
Some parents, as reported by The Seattle Times, reduced work hours or quit their jobs to help support the education needs of their children.
“There was almost a grace period during the shutdowns in the spring. Everybody was like, OK, this is uncharted territory,” said Bill Koski, director of Stanford Law School’s Youth and Education Law Project, which represents low-income students with disabilities in legal cases.
But now, having had a summer’s worth of time to plan for pandemic schooling, many parents of disabled students are worried adjustments for special education have fallen through the cracks. This is a serious problem, says Christine Beckwith, whose 10-year-old son is diagnosed with behavioral disorders, given that children requiring special-education services could regress, or even deteriorate without these resources.
The issue is complex, to be sure, and many school districts have met the challenge of this pandemic with courage. But what cannot stand this school year is the use of Band-aid fixes that hinder, rather than help disabled students get the education that is their right.
In March, for example, many districts, like Chicago Public Schools, only provided their disabled students “enrichment” while schools were closed, with no responsive curriculum, no grading and no tracking of attendance — a method adding little value to student learning.
We’re past a crisis response. It’s time to do better.