The news and social media are full of debate about school reopening. Here in Seattle, the school district has announced its plan to welcome back students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade as well as students in special education intensive service pathways on March 1, 2021.
Before that can happen, the district has to bargain with the Seattle Education Association, representing teachers, about working conditions for the reopening. Some parents are advocating for the district to announce plans for bringing all students pre-K through 12 back to school buildings for in-person learning before the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Others want the district to continue remote learning until more of the population has been vaccinated and disease rates have decreased.
All of the loud debate threatens to drown out the voices of our most vulnerable students – students with disabilities, and especially students of color with disabilities who are disproportionately represented in special education programs.
When school buildings had to close last spring, the Seattle Special Education PTSA heard from many families whose children abruptly stopped receiving the services and specialized direct instruction required by their Individual Educational Programs (IEPs).
Families were told, for example, that services like speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy could not be provided remotely.
In many cases, students who were used to getting push-in services, where a special education teacher or instructional assistant assists the student in a general education class, were left to fend for themselves in their online general education classes because there was no plan in place for providing these services using remote technology. And, as reported by KUOW in August, teachers were told in the spring not to provide specialized direct instruction, which is special instruction described in a student’s IEP.
In the fall, the School District announced a procedure for some students with disabilities to receive in-person services. First, each IEP team has to determine, based on data, that the student is not able to make progress on their IEP goals through remote learning. If the IEP team had not been collecting data (even though it was well-known that the student was not able to engage in remote learning), the process had to pause for weeks while data was collected. Once a team decision was made, it had to be reviewed by the Special Education Department, and then the student/family were required to go through health screening.
The district decided to offer services at each student’s home school, rather than designating a few magnet schools, so each time a new school is identified, time is required to train staff and develop protocols for that school site.
Families report waiting for months after their IEP team has decided that their student is making no progress and is unable to make progress during remote learning.
Most teachers are working hard to meet their students’ needs as much as possible during the pandemic. For some students with disabilities, remote learning has been a better fit for their learning style and some students have found more success in remote learning than they did in person. It’s important to acknowledge that remote learning has been an improvement for some students.
But, for many other students, the pandemic and remote learning have magnified the shortcomings of our schools’ approach to delivering instruction and services to students with disabilities and learning challenges. Too many students receiving special education services in Seattle are not learning alongside their general education peers in classrooms using inclusive practices. Instead, our schools default to removing students from their general education classrooms to receive required support.
In remote learning, this has often meant that students with disabilities and learning challenges are not participating and are not making progress.
And the district’s promise to provide in-person services for students with disabilities who are unable to learn remotely has been a failure. At the end of October, The Seattle Times reported that one student was receiving in-person services; at the end of December, the School Board was told that more than 40 students were receiving in-person services (but really, most of those students were being served at private placements, not at public school buildings); and by mid-January, the total number had increased to 85 to 90 (without breaking out how many of those students were being served at private placements).
In particular, families of students with profound disabilities who cannot access remote learning are in crisis — children who are engaging in self-harming behavior, children who have had to be hospitalized, parents who have lost jobs. Their voices — and the voices of all students with disabilities struggling to participate in learning during the pandemic — deserve to be heard.
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