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Four Big Questions About Teaching Kids With Special Needs In The Age Of Coronavirus

Siblings study their distance-learning lessons at their home in New Rochelle, N.Y., a hot spot in the U.S. for the coronavirus pandemic, on March 18, 2020. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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Mia Marano wants to explore some changes to her son's special education plan.

At his Los Angeles Unified school, Marano's son currently spends part of his day in a class for students with autism. Marano wonders whether her third grader might be a fit for an "inclusive" general education classroom.

So on Feb. 24, Marano emailed the school, eager to meet with her son's teachers to discuss the idea. Marano was told, maybe, to plan for a meeting in April.

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Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, forcing school districts everywhere to shut down campuses -- and creating new challenges for educators trying to teach the state's most vulnerable students.


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The meeting Marano is trying to schedule isn't special. It happens every year -- not only for Marano's son, but for all 795,000 "students with disabilities" in California. And it's exactly the venue for parents and teachers to talk over the questions Marano's asking: Is my son making progress? Is he in the right classes?

But on April 1, the school's principal told Marano she'll have to wait. L.A. Unified is still figuring out an equitable way to hold perhaps as many as 70,000 of these meetings remotely -- and on-schedule. (Marano's son's special education plan expires at the end of May.)

"It leaves us," Marano said, "in a very uncertain territory."

For students with disabilities, these are uncertain times. Their parents, teachers and school districts now face daunting questions about how to handle the crisis.

Even after one month without in-person classes, some of these questions still don't have definitive answers.

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Question #1: Do The Normal Rules Still Apply?

Roughly one out of seven children in California schools has an identified disability, with diagnoses ranging from dyslexia to hearing loss to autism to developmental delays.

Since 1975, a crucial federal law has guaranteed these children access to a "free and appropriate public education." Under that law, now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA:

  • Every student with an identified disability receives an individualized education plan, or IEP. This is a hugely important document. Schools and parents -- and sometimes advocates or attorneys on their behalf -- negotiate these plans, which spell out unique needs and goals for each child.
  • The IEP opens the door to services or accommodations for the student. For example: speech or physical therapy, dedicated "special day" classes, one-on-one aides, special devices to help the student communicate -- and so on.
  • Schools must regularly track students' progress. Every three years, schools reassess whether a child continues to be a "student with a disability." And every year, schools and parents must meet at least once to review, and sometimes revise, each student's IEP. (This was the meeting Marano was trying to schedule.)

State and federal officials have said it again and again: even with campuses closed and in-person services unavailable, the IDEA remains the special education law of the land.

"But we are also going to have to be incredibly flexible," Kristen Wright, the top special education official in the California Department of Education, said in a recent webinar. Wright said many services "cannot be delivered in an identical way to how they were ... when [school] sites were open."

Still, the pandemic has disrupted schools' ability to fully deliver on many of the law's fundamental guarantees -- leading to the biggest question parents and teachers are asking: which of the old rules still apply?

Many parents report basic, critical services still aren't happening. Services that have resumed look very different from what anyone originally planned. Unequal access to laptops and internet connections adds to the challenge. And tracking progress toward some IEP goals will be practically impossible as long as campuses remain closed.

Question #2: Should School Districts Fear Lawsuits?

School districts are in a tough spot, too.

In a typical year, California handles roughly 10,000 formal disputes (not lawsuits) over special education services -- a rate that's higher than most states. Now, school officials worry whether a pandemic-related disruption in services could turn into a legal liability down the road.

"They don't want to get sued," said Steve Milliken, board president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. He says administrators are thinking: "'We're spending enough time trying to figure out how to educate them, but if I don't get the IEP done, please don't sue me.'"

Milliken does not want to abandon the IDEA. But his organization has called on the federal government to extend some of the deadlines spelled out in the law to give districts more breathing room -- and to guarantee that state or federal regulators don't penalize schools for coronavirus-related delays.

10-year-olds Sawyer Whitely (left) and Michael Mendoza, both of whom receive special education services for autism, pose for a photograph at their school in Virginia. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocates for special education parents say this isn't necessary because parents individually allow for deadline extensions all the time. They have advised parents to be flexible and cooperative with school districts -- so long as schools are doing their best.

Organizations like the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates have also demanded that federal policymakers leave the IDEA alone. (Within the next two weeks, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is supposed to submit a report to Congress recommending what, if any, changes should be made to the law.)

LAUSD parent Mia Marano says she understands that the circumstances are extraordinary.

But, she said, "when parents are made to feel like the district has put their own liability ahead of doing the best that they can in exceptional times, they are actually making themselves more vulnerable in some ways."


Question #3: What Happens To Individualized Education Plans?

At the time the iLEAD California network of charter schools decided to cancel all in-person classes, there was no time to follow the normal playbook.

If they had, Amber Rogers would've scheduled emergency IEP meetings to inform their parents that special education services had moved entirely online. The IEP is a master plan for all the services a student receives -- and for many students, virtual instruction isn't in their plan.

But that would've meant scheduling as many as 800 meetings in the middle of a crisis. It wasn't realistic, Rogers said.

"When you have 800 kids," explained Rogers, iLEAD's director of student support, "you've got to move them to virtual like that. You don't have time to do meetings for those."

In the weeks since, California Department of Education officials have vindicated iLEAD's decision: they've advised that schools don't need to worry about holding meetings to re-write IEPs to include plans for distance learning.

State official Kristen Wright said parents and teachers should discuss "alternate" arrangements that will get their students through the crisis -- but these interim plans "are not meant to replace the current IEP for when children go back to school sites."

Farrah Easton, a parent and former high school administrator in New Rochelle, N.Y., assists her two daughters with distance learning lessons during the coronavirus pandemic. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said many parents are probably better off leaving their child's IEP as it stands.

Once the crisis is over, Alamazan said, parents and schools "can go back and try to calculate how much instruction time a school could not deliver and try to figure out whether a child is eligible for compensatory services to make up for that lost time."

Leaving the current plans in place will create challenges, though.

An IEP isn't just a list of classes and therapies. The individualized education plan also spells out goals for each student. Some goals for students are more behavioral than academic: Play nicely with your peers. During a conversation, let others have a turn to talk. When you get frustrated, don't leave the classroom.

Nasser Cortez, an assistant professor of clinical education at USC, says goals like these "may not translate over to an online goal format."

"Even if you worked with a parent to track it," Cortez said, "it could be difficult -- particularly with the social distancing or if a child doesn't have access to a [videoconferencing] platform."

And what about students like Marano's son, whose IEP expires at the end of May and needs to be renewed before next year?

Marano has told her school she's happy to meet over Zoom. Legally, there's no problem with that: parents have been able to hold IEP meetings over the phone since 2004, Alamazan says.

Cortez says even the videoconferencing solution is not likely to be straightforward. IEP meetings often involve sharing student work samples and data -- how will that work in a video chat? And what if parents don't feel comfortable with the format? What if a lack of internet connection makes virtual meetings impossible?

"A lot of families," Cortez said, "might not have that luxury."


Question #4: 'Can You Even Do Physical Therapy Over Zoom?'

More than one-third of California's students with disabilities receive speech and language therapy. Thousands more receive adaptive physical education, behavioral therapy, counseling or audiology services.

Ensuring students can still receive these specialized therapies -- collectively known as "related services" -- through distance learning is a challenge that goes beyond getting every student a laptop and an internet connection.

But if you're wondering whether it's even possible to offer hands-on services -- like physical therapy or occupational therapy -- over the internet, Dawn Evenson said the answer is yes.

Evenson is the founder and CEO of the iLEAD network of charter schools. Around 3,500 iLEAD students are enrolled in the charter's home-study program -- including about 400 students with disabilities. And even in normal times, most of these home-study students receive their related services virtually.

"There's always a way," said Amber Rogers, whose job at iLEAD includes overseeing special education.

An example: Evenson "comes from a family of occupational therapists" -- OT's help students learn physical coordination, cope with sensory overload, moderate their emotions and master basic tasks in daily life.

Evenson said recently, an OT wanted to work on a child's fine motor skills in a virtual session. So the therapist asked whether the child's parent had a colander and pipe cleaners in her kitchen. Evenson said these are the kinds of common tools OT's use all the time.

"For years, my mom was dragging things out of the house or into the kitchen to work with her patients in person," Evenson said, "Now that they're doing this virtually, the parents are finding out. To me ... that's better."

A 9-year-old in New Rochelle, N.Y., a hotspot in the U.S. for the coronavirus, works on distance learning assignments on a laptop at his home. (John Moore/Getty Images)

But schools like iLEAD have the benefit of an existing virtual special education program to scale up. Other school districts -- like L.A. Unified -- must mount a much steeper curve to offer these related services from a distance.

"The technologies and teaching practices are not as well-established" in special education, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a video update on April 6.

LAUSD's official plan was to offer "phase-in" sessions of physical, speech or occupational therapies in the first week of April. The district planned to resume "full services" this week, according to an LAUSD memo to teachers provided to KPCC/LAist.

Several district parents say they're not sure LAUSD is following this plan. At the time of Beutner's speech, LAUSD parent Kelley Coleman reported only limited contact with her son's related service providers. This week, Coleman said her son's providers have posted a few video lessons and resources -- but "no word on any services actually starting." Other parents have reported similar situations to KPCC/LAist this week.

Coleman's son -- who has "moderate-to-severe" special education needs -- has so much trouble sitting still in front of a computer that she doubts he'll gain much benefit from his services anyway.

"There are no easy solutions here," said one LAUSD speech therapy teacher, who asked not to be identified by name. "I don't know how I am going to overcome the structural challenges of providing virtual support to that student. I don't think LAUSD does either. I don't think anybody truly does."

But this teacher said there is good reason to delay a hasty resumption of services online: "equity."

This teacher works at a more-affluent school in Los Feliz and a less-affluent school in the MacArthur Park neighborhood: "I bet you can guess which school had more families that expressed any concern about accessing their speech time."

This speech teacher said it's not clear "how to provide these services in a way that doesn't advantage only privileged students and families and further disadvantages everyone else."

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Steve Milliken. LAist regrets the error.

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