How Children With Disabilities Are Getting Left Behind

Schools are struggling to educate 7 million students who receive special education services in the absence of physical classrooms.

Adrienne Stuart’s 5-year-old son, Jack, has never told her “hello.” It’s a milestone she was hoping to reach within the next year.

But in mid-March, his school was closed, at least until May. Now, she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’ll likely have to wait longer to hear from her son.

A vast majority of the nation’s schools ― over 120,000 in all ― have closed in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus. For students with disabilities, the stakes of these school closures are especially high. These students often rely on a litany of services at school, from speech therapy, to physical therapy, to occupational therapy, that parents simply aren’t trained to do on their own. Parents and educators worry that fragile gains made this year could disappear with so much time off. An eventual transition back to school could prove especially difficult.

“I know a lot of people are, but we are especially reliant on the school system,” says Stuart, who lives in Tacoma, Washington.

Schools have struggled to educate the 7 million students who receive special education services in the absence of physical classrooms. In mid-March, the U.S. Department of Education fueled confusion when it suggested that schools that cut off academic services for all students would not be required to serve students with disabilities. Some schools ended academic services amid concerns they would run afoul of federal law if they could not serve disabled students with the same rigor as everyone else. Later in March, the department clarified schools “should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction” to address equity concerns.

Still, in recent weeks, parents of students with disabilities report receiving only a fraction of the services to which they’re entitled. Schools have canceled meetings to devise or update individualized education programs ― or IEPs, the legal document that outlines necessary services for each disabled student. Classwork isn’t tailored to students’ disabilities. And in some cases, the adults who work most closely with students with disabilities, like paraprofessionals, are losing their jobs, cutting off a crucial line to these kids.

What’s more, within Congress’ recent $2 trillion coronavirus bill is a provision that could allow Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to waive portions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that governs special education and calls for disabled students to get an equal education to their non-disabled peers.

“We’re just feeling rudderless at the moment,” said Stuart, director of public policy at the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council.

Stuart’s son has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that impacts a person’s ability to speak, move, eat and breathe. Lately, the school’s speech language pathologist has been teaching him how to use an eye gaze device, a piece of technology that tracks people’s eye movements, eventually allowing them to communicate through a computer screen. Stuart dreams of the day her son will be able to tell her if he’s hungry, if he’s frustrated, if he hurts.

But ever since school closed, she hasn’t received any instructions or supports in this area. Without the help, it will prolong the process. It’s a complicated device ― Stuart feels like she’s utterly unprepared as she tries to direct him.

“That’s a huge void, not being able to get him the support he needs to communicate, it’s devastating,” Stuart said, noting an IEP meeting for her son was canceled with no apparent makeup in sight.

Jack, Adrienne Stuart's son, is 5 years old. He is going to miss months of school as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jack, Adrienne Stuart's son, is 5 years old. He is going to miss months of school as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Adrienne Stuart

Many of these parents say they don’t even know if they can blame their schools, recognizing the uphill battle all educators are fighting, while school leaders have said they’re terrified of facing potential lawsuits over lack of services. Organizations that work with district leaders say that after a rocky start, schools have gradually been improving the quality of virtual services offered to these students.

“It’s a big shift and happening literally with no time to really plan,” said Valerie Williams, director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

“What we all need to do right now is we need to extend some grace to ourselves, and everyone else,” she said. “It’s going to take a minute and it’s going to take some collaboration.”

Still, for working parents, the process of educating their students from home, especially when their child has specific learning needs, can prove daunting.

By day, Lizzy Sebring works as a paraprofessional at Everett School District in Washington. By night, she has been working at the local Safeway, in an effort to save up cash in case she is furloughed from her day job. She has worked every day and night for the past three weeks, until 6:30 a.m. She sleeps in fits. Three hours of rest represents a good day.

Her two children have autism, and rely on services like speech therapy and reading intervention. The district has recognized that children like hers will likely miss out on necessary services while school is out.

Her sons — in pre-K and second grade — usually see speech therapists up to three times a week in school. The therapist has put up a website with activities and tricks for parents, but without the training, and without much time, Sebring has been struggling to compensate. Sebring was supposed to have parent-teacher conferences this week for her older son, where she planned to ask for more math support for him. When again will she get the opportunity to advocate for her child?

Her son is two grade levels behind academically and relies on the routine of school. Lately, he panics when pushed to do his schoolwork at home ― overwhelmed by the sudden shift in structure. As a single mother, who is working nearly constantly, the added responsibility of homeschool teaching can feel crushing.

“It’s pick and choose your battles. Some days we don’t do anything. It’s just too hard and he gets too overwhelmed,” said Sebring. “When I do my work ... admittedly they’re watching shows and movies.”

But for as difficult as the past month has been, Sebring and other parents worry that going back to school will prove to be the biggest challenge of all for their children.

“For a kid who is already struggling and is behind academically, this six-week break or longer does not do him any favors,” said Sebring. “I can only do so much as a parent.”

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