Rubric for Recovery: Tightening budgets, litigation add to pandemic special ed pressures

Editor’s note: This is part of a four-part series on the challenges schools are facing during the pandemic trying to advance marginalized students and the creative ways they are trying to teach them online and in-person.

Kevin Rubenstein’s fall is turning out nothing like he predicted when the pandemic emerged in the spring.

Kevin Rubenstein, assistant superintendent for student services at Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 in Elmhurst, Illinois.

Permission granted by Kevin Rubenstein

The district-level special education director knew there would be pressure to recover learning loss for students with disabilities, but he didn’t foresee the administrative tasks never dealt with before, such as contact tracing, obtaining clear mask shields for students with speech therapy supports, and working through the logistics of creating safe and accessible on-campus snack areas.

When asked if he’s addressing these issues on a week-by-week or day-to-day basis, Rubenstein, assistant superintendent for student services at Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 in Elmhurst, Illinois, said, “No. It’s hour-by-hour.”

Layered on top of the unique COVID-19-related responsibilities is the federal requirement to provide individualized services and supports whether students with disabilities are learning in-person or remotely. Schools must also help these learners work toward achieving ambitious goals developed by teams of educators, therapists and parents.

For some students with disabilities, remote learning has revealed a preferred learning style free of classmate distractions and the academic pressures of comparing themselves to peers without disabilities. Some students with anxiety disorders, those who were bullied in school, those struggling with executive functioning skills, and those who are both gifted and qualify for special education have said distance learning is working well for them, according to teachers and parents.

But for students who require intensive, constant or hands-on supports, virtual school has impeded their prepandemic progress because in-person supports could not be replicated in meaningful ways to distance learning formats, say educators and parents.

Indeed, a survey of school leaders nationwide in May by AASA, The School Superintendents Association found 78% said special education services were the most difficult educational service to implement equitably during the pandemic.

Parents also struggled as they were expected to play a bigger role in monitoring and supporting their child’s educational progress in remote learning, yet few parents have the training to deliver the specific interventions and therapies their child needs to meet the goals in their individualized education program (IEP).

As schools increase options for in-person learning, the hope is that students can recover learning loss and get back on track to meet their goals. But despite new collaborations and approaches to continue progress both in distance and in-person learning models, numerous obstacles exist.

Gauging and making progress

There were about 7 million students with disabilities, ages 3-21, in U.S. public schools in the 2018-19 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES data also shows most students with disabilities ages 6-21 spend 80% or more of their day in general education classes, meaning they are exposed to the same academic rigor as their non-disabled peers. Students with more intensive needs, including those with significant cognitive disabilities, also must be exposed to the same grade-level general education content standards, but modifications can be made to what they are expected to learn.

In its reopening guidance for special education, the Washington state superintendent’s office said schools should “think creatively” about staffing and student support. It said new roles would likely arise during the COVID-19 pandemic for more nurses, behavior technicians, mental health professionals and other staff who specialize in diversified learning, technology and curriculum design to make curriculum accessible in multiple formats simultaneously.

The state also said Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds could be used to support this flexible learning.

“What else can you do? You have to attack it everyday.”

Steve VanMatre

Superintendent, Premont ISD in Texas

Giving students meaningful access to the full curriculum and tracking learning growth are critical for understanding progress but have been made more difficult with online learning, educators say. As a result, some districts are opening in-person learning opportunities to students with disabilities who have the most difficulty accessing services remotely.

That’s what the Premont Independent School District in Premont, Texas, did during the summer. Students who typically attend self-contained classes, which have reduced student-to-teacher ratios, were invited back to school campuses for three weeks of personalized learning as soon as the governor’s order prohibiting face-to-face instruction was lifted in June.

When the school year began Aug. 24, all students with disabilities had the option of attending in-person learning, and 58 chose to learn on campus. That number has grown to 91, with some students with disabilities opting to learn remotely, Special Education Director Ashley Cantu said in an email.

Premont ISD is still aiming to perfect its special education supports during the pandemic. It has encouraged students with dyslexia who have chosen to learn remotely to come to dedicated in-person sessions for extra instruction, and welcomed certain students with disabilities to participate in individual or group interventions on Fridays, the district’s asynchronous learning day, said Premont ISD Superintendent Steve VanMatre.

Additionally, the district hired more special education staff and is ramping up its response to intervention approach that increases the intensity of interventions based on students’ response to instruction.

Despite the measures being taken, VanMatre said early testing data shows disappointing levels of learning loss. “What else can you do? You have to attack it everyday,” he said.

Steve VanMatre, superintendent of Premont Independent School District in Texas.

Permission granted by Steve VanMatre

Like Premont, schools across the country are putting emphasis on informal assessments and consistently tracking various academic data points to understand how far students with disabilities have fallen academically and where they should be. That could mean having students show answers on a whiteboard while video conferencing with a teacher, or email a photo of their written answers.

It’s not a perfect or even preferred method to gauge academic progress, but teachers are doing their best in these unusual circumstances, Rubenstein said.

“We want students to learn and grow and be their best selves, and we’re doing it within a shorter period of time a day and with different resources,” Rubenstein said.

As the director of The Advocacy Institute, Candace Cortiella monitors achievement rates of students with disabilities nationwide. She said remote learning has hampered schools’ abilities to measure the interim steps toward students’ IEP goals. Districts that have offered more professional development to help teachers provide instruction and modifications remotely seem further along, Cortiella said.

But students with disabilities were already performing behind their peers without disabilities even before the pandemic’s interference (see chart below).

Average National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math scores for students who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have been below the performance of students who don’t qualify for IDEA services.

As the pandemic continues, schools need to ensure online learning programs for students with disabilities are not only accessible but also provide challenging objectives for academic growth and that engage students in learning, said Courtney Pugh, a consultant with 4 PEAKS Educational Consulting in Virginia.

“What is the point in accessing if you get nothing from it?,” Pugh wrote in an email to Education Dive. “A child who logs in for 30 seconds to count for attendance is accessing the education but not getting any benefit.”

Increased litigation, identification predicted

Already, every school district and state education agency has been sued under one national class action lawsuit that claims all schools violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by closing schools to in-person learning in the spring. Although the court case faces an uphill battle to prove jurisdiction and elements of its claims, school systems and school attorneys are watching this case and other COVID-19-related special education litigation closely.

Several school administration groups say they have concerns about increases in litigation against districts due to allegations of failures to meet IDEA requirements during the pandemic. A survey by the Association of Educational Service Agencies, as reported by AASA, found 29% of ESAs “felt very worried that special education litigation would consume much of their time and resources in the 2020-2021 school year.” In addition, 24% of ESAs responded that they planned to budget $50,000 or more for each special education lawsuit.

Instead of focusing on potential litigation, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education is discussing ways state education systems can best monitor student progress on IEP goals as face-to-face inspections of district compliance are suspended, said NASDSE Executive Director John Eisenberg.

“Folks are trying to rapidly figure that out,” said Eisenberg, a former state special education director from Virginia. “Traditionally, there has not been a [state-level] database where people upload progress toward goals and objectives.”

Some observers also predict increases in the number of requests for initial evaluations for special education services, which can be made by parents, educators and others. School systems are required under IDEA to identify students whose disability adversely affects educational performance.

A possible increase in the number of students referred to special education due to learning loss will tax schools, Cortiella said, noting the special education system is already overwhelmed by a backlog of evaluation requests and annual IEP reviews delayed by the pandemic; pre-existing special education teacher and support staff shortages; and shrinking school system budgets.

Silver linings

Despite the obstacles, there have been some silver linings, say educators. Eisenberg is hearing positive reactions from educators and parents about the expanded use of teletherapy, which allows therapists to meet virtually to help individual students with their specific goals.

Students with and without disabilities attend in-person classes in Premont Independent School District in Premont, Texas, this fall.

Permission granted by Steve VanMatre

Educators also are being more creative. Special education teacher Gina Bialas didn’t know the educational backgrounds of her 17 students, some of whom have significant cognitive disabilities, when she came to Mitchell High School in South Dakota this fall. Additionally, some students had behavior challenges that may have been triggered from being away from a school setting for so long.

She consulted with related service providers and behavior specialists, in addition to beginning differentiated instruction based on students’ individual needs. The students keep a self-awareness journal to help with their social and emotional needs. And though all her students are learning in-person, Bialas has them complete a computer-based activity every day so they can practice submitting remote assignments if the school needs to close or a student needs to quarantine.

Missy Lucas, director of special services for Willard Public Schools in Willard, Missouri, said her district is being more intentional about reviewing curriculum and differentiating instruction to meet the unique needs of individual students, as well as including modifications and accommodations that would allow those students better opportunities to make progress.

Lucas is also impressed with parents’ and educators’ creativity and collaboration to ensure learning continues. For example, educators in her district assembled task boxes with manipulatives based on each student’s individualized needs and demonstrated how to use those hands-on assignments to students learning from home and their parents.

“It does not have to be as difficult for everyone if we work together.”

Kevin Rubenstein

Assistant superintendent for student services, Elmhurst, Illinois

Parent-school partnerships have strengthened because communications have been more frequent, more personalized and more meaningful, Lucas said, as IEP teams work through the difficulties of delivering assistive technology to students’ homes and individualizing instruction and accommodations to remote or socially distanced class formats.

“It’s been a game changer,” she said. “There’s so much collaboration because everyone wants to get it right.”

The parent-school collaborative mindset took hold in Dickinson Independent School District in Dickinson, Texas, when the special education department partnered with two parents of a student with disabilities to help special educators make their learning platforms more effective and efficient.

Tiffany and Jeremy Unruh, both educational consultants, developed and led learning modules last summer to explain how special educators in the district can populate their Google Classrooms with targeted instructional activities, clear directions for parents and students, and activities that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge.

“What they did for my teachers put them miles ahead of everyone else,” said Dickinson ISD Executive Director of Special Programs Laurie Rodriguez.

In Rubenstein’s Illinois school district, educators are providing one-to-one support and coaching for parents who need behavioral and executive functioning resources at home for their students. The district and its parent group — the Special Education Resource Group — have cohosted webinars, parent meetings and other events to ensure all parents feel supported, Rubenstein said.

“It does not have to be as difficult for everyone if we work together,” he said.

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