Schools Are Again Behind the Eight Ball

The Making of a Perfect Storm

Nearly 14 percent of the nation’s 7.3 million public school students receive special services through IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which is our nation’s primary law to provide for those students requiring special education.

But policymakers everywhere are sounding the alarms about the increasing difficulty in meeting those students’ needs during the pandemic. And some fear that there are children out there in need of those services who haven’t been identified at all.

Being that parents and teachers engage students the most, they are often the first to observe the signs of their disabilities. And that’s especially the case when it comes to students with learning disabilities, whose needs are not as immediately apparent as other students requiring special education services.

But due to the upheaval wrought by the pandemic, parents and teachers alike have been beset by significant interruptions that have impeded recognizing those needs, educators told Education Week.

Whereas some parents registered their concerns while supervising their children’s online learning, others (primarily those who couldn’t afford work interruptions), because they weren’t afforded the option of staying at home with their children to monitor remote learning, were clueless as the subtle signs of larger problems began to emerge.

As far as teachers were concerned, extended periods of remote learning or class time were interrupted by frequent quarantines. This reduced the number of those ordinary encounters that can be so vital in gauging students’ progress.

These dynamics, when taken together, have combined with other challenges to form a perfect storm for schools as they seek to return to normal. Schools are being charged with separating which students need to be assessed for learning disabilities and which are struggling with the “normal” challenges associated with online learning.

Educators must simultaneously recognize those unidentified concerns and prioritize which newfound parental concerns are the most urgent. This needs to be done with fewer data from classroom assessments and statewide exams than in a normal year.

And add to this mix the exacerbated social and emotional stress induced by the pandemic which is impacting all students.

“It’s going to be really difficult to assess where students are and to determine whether what we are seeing is the result of a disability or a new baseline for everyone,” said Meghan Whittaker, the director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Online: Creating Complication Within Complication

“There may be many children showing similar warning signs of disabilities that have gone undetected,” said Winnie Williams-Hall, an 8th-grade special education teacher in Chicago.

“During in-person learning, you are face-to-face with a student, and you can gauge facial expressions when you need to slow down,” Williams-Hall said. “But that’s difficult to do during virtual learning and the student doesn’t even have the camera on.”

“Similarly, the same student saddled with a behavioral disorder or emotional disturbance may become defiant in an in-person classroom, may reverse course by muting the microphone or ignore the computer completely while remote learning,” added Williams-Hall.

“Even for those teachers who are experienced at recognizing learning disabilities, the sound quality and limitations of computer programs may have hampered those recognition abilities over the past year,” said Teresa Ranieri, a teacher and literacy coach at a New York City elementary school.

“During online reading exercises, it could be difficult to hear if a student was able to blend letter sounds together to form words, to deconstruct words into individual phonetic sounds, and to rhyme,” she said.

Ranieri added, “There’s a delay, there may be a poor internet connection, and when all of the children say it at the same time, it’s very hard to hear that child”.

Despite Parents’ Valiant Attempts

Parents grappling with their children’s special needs told Education Week that the combination of pursuing evaluations for special education while supporting their children’s academics and working together with schools to create IEPs was both overwhelmingly confusing and downright discouraging, even when they received support.

Liana Durkin, an Alpharetta, Georgia single mother with a very intensive work-from-home job, said,  “it began to feel like ‘a full-time job’ to help her 6th-grade daughter, Rylee, keep up with assignments, pay attention during six-hour days of online classes, and process concepts she clearly struggled to grasp.”

After her daughter was evaluated by an independent psychologist, Durkin subsequently had her daughter evaluated by the school therapist who confirmed the first psychologist’s diagnosis that Rylee had ADHD. Because the process was so confusing, Durkin needed to rely on advice from other parents and Facebook groups, where she heard many horror stories of how children weren’t attended to properly.

Durkin couldn’t help but wonder, “How do parents that need to go into work every day deal with this?”

Even as Congress considered its first relief bill, the CARES Act, school district administrators were already pushing for waivers from some parts of IDEA. Most relevant were the timelines in the special education law requiring evaluations to be completed within 60 days of the request. Their primary argument was the difficulty of conducting assessments for students learning in remote environments.

When then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was asked by Congress to evaluate the need for IDEA waivers she responded that the law’s requirements should largely remain intact, even during the pandemic.

“With ingenuity, innovation, and grit, I know this nation’s educators and schools can continue to faithfully educate every one of its students,” she wrote in April 2020.

Down but Not Done

But notwithstanding DeVos’ optimism and confidence, the question remains, “Are schools capable of adhering to federal mandates, or will this critical requirement also gradually slip away?” And if it does, will that lead to even more students being denied their essential rights guaranteed by IDEA, further complicating matters?

Is the situation hopeless? Certainly not! Americans have shown their resilience many times in the past when they have risen to even more difficult challenges. Whether this will require increasing school budgets in the short run to hire more personnel, “thinking out of the box,” or something else, we can be assured that the country as a whole has the mettle to do whatever is necessary to care for our children with special needs.