The state legislature has invested millions in new spending in school districts to be used for special needs education, and now some education experts say many of those students are being underserved by districts that continue to use remote learning.
While the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has issued special education guidance for use during the pandemic, under state law school districts have the legal authority to reopen schools for in-person learning.
The Arc of Washington, a group formed in 1935, advocates for children with developmental disabilities. Executive Director Stacy Dym told Lens: “I do feel they could be doing a better job. The interaction that they’re (special needs students) provided with other children is particularly important. It is not easy to generate that outside of a school setting.”
Since September, districts such as the Lake Washington School District have allowed 500 special needs students to receive in-person instruction, while the Seattle School District only has one special needs student in a classroom. Meanwhile, a group of parents of special needs students are legally challenging a State Board of Education decision allowing districts to count “learning hours” that don’t include interaction between students and teachers.
Few seem to argue that remote learning is superior to in-person. At a Nov. 30 meeting of the House Education Committee, Superintendent Chris Reykdal told lawmakers: “this instruction model does not work for a lot of kids, period. They’re failing because they’re not engaged. There is a routine that matters a lot to them and they’re not getting it right now. But the tradeoff that districts are making is how much risk to lives do we take by bringing students in with masks, teachers in with masks.”
Those concerns extend beyond academics and into emotional wellbeing. Reykdal said his office checks the suicide data each month.
“I’m deeply worried about mental health,” he said.
Washington Policy Center (WPC) Education Director Liv Finne told Lens these issues are even more pronounced for special needs students. “They are going to fall hardest from this pandemic. They are most dependent on the interaction between teachers and themselves to learn. Some districts have recognized that reality and have gone to great lengths to make sure special needs students are being learned.”
Dym says it’s not just the students who need support through in-person instruction – it’s also their family members. “For our children with very significant disabilities, some families don’t have the tools they need. They desperately need that extra support. They have very challenging kinds of situations that (the) parents didn’t necessarily go through as children.”
Special needs students’ education is protected under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and districts are required to provide each student with an individual education program (IEP). For the 2019-20 school year, the state legislature added $4,750 in funding per special needs student to districts – a 35-percent increase from the prior year. Combined spending per special needs student in Washington state is $18,000.
“Lots of children that have special needs, but they are not super handicapped,” Finne said. “They just need a little extra attention.”
The approach taken by districts has varied. In addition to Lake Washington, Bellingham Public Schools and Peninsula School District are among those allowing in-person learning, while the Bethel and Arlington School Districts are among those using a hybrid model.
The Seattle School District’s approach has drawn controversy; according to a letter written by the Seattle Special Education PTSA, the district requires students requesting in-person services to prove they need it. Although 90 students have been approved, only two are receiving in-person instruction, while there are an estimated 8,000 special needs students in the Seattle School District with IEPs.
Eastside Education Network (EEN) Founder and President Beth Sigall told Lens it’s “frankly (an) illegal burden to place on families to prove they need services that in normal times they are legally required to (provide).”
She added that the IEPs provide school districts a “ready-made amount of information that’s customized. You can look at the workload. We know which kids need the most help.”
Despite the Seattle School District’s approach, Sigall said that overall “suburban Seattle districts are definitely trying” to accommodate special needs students.
However, Dym noted that as the largest district in the state, Seattle’s decision on the issue affects the most special needs students. “A small rural school district may only affect three kids.”
Like Finne, Sigall says that in-person learning is critical, because “students with disabilities commonly receive services and support that are difficult, if not impossible, to deliver through a laptop. The online approximation of those can’t replace it. A big thing that students are missing out on is being with peers, being in their classroom – a place that has structure, predictability, continuity. These are massive changes to the schedule of people who struggle with schedule changes.”
Dym warns that prolonged remote learning can have permanent consequences for special needs students, even after they return to in-person learning. “For kids with disabilities, the word ‘regression’ is the most appropriate word to use. They lose skills that really allow them to be independent and healthy. Sometimes in some cases it will be difficult to regain. Kids may develop behaviors as a response to their inability to communicate. It’s very difficult to unlearn.”