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Special Needs Education During COVID

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Special needs education

The pandemic response across the country has led to incalculable problems and challenges. One problem area that has been hit especially hard: special needs education.

What is special needs education?

In normal times, U.S. law requires states and local school districts to provide opportunities for children with special needs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), and other laws have altogether changed the educational landscape.

As a result, children with disabilities tend to get a wide variety of services through their school districts, starting as early as age three. Services can last until high school graduation, which might be as late as age 22 for some students.

Occupational therapy, speech therapy, even physical therapy services are often part of the plan. Some parents have left the in-school education system but still receive comparable assistance in home-schooling.

The importance of the IEP

One outgrowth of the current system: the ubiquitous Individualized Education Program (or IEP). The IEP is more than just a legalistic document. At its best, it can be a roadmap to the instruction, support system and additional services required to maximize educational benefits for a specific student.

As many schools (and entire school districts) have gone online, however, the IEPs for many students have become much more complicated. Costs have mushroomed, making it much more difficult to provide adequate and appropriate services. Many advocacy groups express concern that special needs education may be hamstrung during the pandemic.

Many school districts have experienced difficulty in keeping up with changes imposed by distance learning initiatives. Tucson’s largest school district, for instance, has promised to continue services — but struggles to do so.

Real parents with real problems

It’s easy for school districts to promise services uninterrupted by coronavirus lockdowns. The reality, of course, can be very different.

A recent New York Times article, for instance, discussed the reality of distance learning for Franscheska Eliza’s 9-year-old son. Her son has autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and anxiety issues. In school, he had an aide dedicated to assisting him, and he integrated with the rest of his 3rd-grade class for many activities.

At home, though, Ms. Eliza’s son does not have access to all of those services. In effect, Ms. Eliza has become the assistant ordinarily provided by his school district. That means a difficult shift in the mother/son relationship, an inability to accomplish any other tasks during her son’s school sessions, and a loss of progress in his education.

Similar setbacks have been reported by parents of other special needs children around the country. It seems unlikely to change in the immediate future — though everyone hopes for a widespread return to in-school education sometime in the next school semester.

What’s a parent to do? In most cases, innovate now, and hope for a return to normalcy in the near future.

What can you do?

There are somethings to do to keep special needs children from slipping too far behind. Most important: stay in touch with the special education office in your local school district. Insist on responsive services, and maintain focus on that IEP. It’s the most efficient and effective way to assure services.

Experts note that updating the IEP to reflect distance learning might make it easier to get service levels back to near-normal. Many school districts have terrific backlogs in IEP development, both because it’s been hard to accommodate distance learning for the past two semesters, and because new students coming into the system have been doubly hard to evaluate.

What resources are available to parents, who may be struggling to stay on top of their child’s special needs education? We’ve given you links to some information and resources here. Make sure you’ve reached out to therapists, caretakers and other professionals. Get your own planning in order.

Meanwhile, maintain appropriate social distancing. Wear a mask. Make sure your child is protected (including by masking). And hope we’ll get through this soon.

Please be well. And take care of your family as best you can. We’re thinking of you.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.