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.