Although both the federal and state governments have issued new guidance for special education programs, a lack of specifics and directions has still left schools, parents, and advocates up in the air.
Some parents who said their children are not receiving legally required services feel left behind as government officials advise districts on how to shift Individualized Education Programs online or on the phone.
On Friday, Chicago Public Schools announced that it will provide 1:1 therapy online, for students who had been guaranteed it. That came on the heels of an announcement that the district will spend more on special education next year. Chicago had previously set tightened guidelines on one-on-one meetings in the wake of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct between adults and students.
That announcement followed new guidelines issued by the Illinois State Board of Education and by the U.S. Department of Education, both affirming that districts cannot bypass federal special education law.
Here are eight things to know so far:
1. Some observers thought the federal government would give districts waivers from providing services. That didn’t happen.
School district leaders across the country had lobbied for waivers that would allow them to opt out of some parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some wanted more time to evaluate students for services, while others wanted to protect school districts from potentially expensive lawsuits if they failed to provide students with proper services.
2. The state is not offering additional waivers or flexibility to districts.
In addition, the Illinois State Board of Education told school districts that they have to provide all special education services to students, even while acknowledging the challenges of providing services like physical therapy virtually.
Advocates think the guidelines are vague. Chris Yun, education policy analyst at Access Living, says that the current recommendations from the state have confused parents, “Several parents have told me that they read ISBE guidelines and they couldn’t really get very specific answers, like school should do this and you can expect that.”
3. Families say they feel a disconnect between guidance and reality.
In Chicago, parents worry that their children will fall behind. Nancy Curran of Chicago feels that her son has effectively lost the entire school year, first in setbacks from an 11-day teachers strike in October and now as buildings are closed for the rest of the school year.
Her son Oliver, 11, is missing critical therapy. Oliver, a sixth grader at John Coonley elementary school on the city’s North Side, struggles to walk and write, and wears braces on his arms and legs. He had brain surgery last summer for epilepsy.
“He just has to have physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech. These are services he needs to be successful in his life and he’s not getting it,” Curran said.
Curran has written to school district officials to see if she could get his services over the phone, but she said she has not received any information.
“There has been radio silence. I just want to know what’s going on with speech, what’s going on with occupational therapy, can they keep my kid back a year? They have not answered my mail,” Curran said. (Chicago Public Schools did not respond to a specific request for comment on her case.)
Carson fears that her son will not retain what he learned this year and is worried that he will not be prepared for seventh grade.
4. Schools still have to hold annual meetings about each student with an Individualized Education Program, which spells out what services they will provide. But districts don’t have to host separate meetings on how they will deliver services virtually.
Schools are still required to hold annual meetings, but the state board prohibited in-person gatherings for now. The state requires that parents be involved in those meetings and that schools think of alternative ways to obtain written consent from parents.
On Friday, Chicago alerted parents that school nurses, speech and language pathologists, therapists, psychologists, and social workers were approved to host one-on-one meetings online. Chicago had previously set tightened guidelines on one-on-one meetings in the wake of an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct between adults and students.
5. The state is recommending that educators consider therapy and intervention by phone to meet student needs.
Yun said that schools can find ways to move online many of the services students receive. But some students may not have the devices and access they need to make that happen; about 1 in 5 Chicago students, for example, don’t have access to broadband Internet, according to a new research brief.
6. A state monitor oversees Chicago in providing special education services. That will continue during remote learning.
The federal government’s recent decision potentially opens the door for lawsuits if school districts do not comply with special education law. Chicago has already faced legal trouble for mishandling special education services.
After special education advocates filed a complaint in November 2017, the state board placed the district under oversight. In 2018, the board detailed how the Chicago district systematically denied or delayed special education services, and the board appointed a monitor over the district.
That oversight continues.
While it appears no lawsuits have been filed, Matthew Cohen — one of the lead attorneys behind the complaint — said that someone may take legal action later. “Kids are not getting what they need in the moment,” he said. “Then, there will probably be fights about what happens after school comes back because no one’s going to know where the kids are at or what progress they’ve made or lack of progress.”
7. Parents have a way to file complaints.
According to Cohen, parents do have options. They can request an IEP meeting or file a request for mediation, a due process hearing, or they can file a complaint with the federal government through the Office for Civil Rights.
8. Chicago plans to spend more on special education students in the coming year.
The district’s latest budget draft includes a $97.3 million increase for special education.
Kalyn Belsha contributed reporting.