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Students with disabilities continue to grapple with COVID-stalled learning, staffing shortages

Pandemic school shutdowns and virtual classes stalled learning for Illinois students with disabilities. Efforts to help them recover are complicated, slow, and held up by staffing shortages.

Informational documents from the Illinois State Board of Education on Individualized Education Program forms are partially obscured by shadows.

COVID’s effects on education were amplified for students with disabilities. Many students with disabilities and their families are not getting the services they need to recover.

Dan Lyon / Chalkbeat

Nine-year-old Colin Hammer has been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. At his school, in District 122 in New Lenox, about an hour outside of Chicago, he’s supposed to get speech therapy, occupational therapy, social work, specialized instruction, and an in-classroom aide. 

But as for many students with disabilities, Colin’s education almost completely paused when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

The pandemic’s disruptions, which caused many students to fall behind in school and regress in basic skills, were amplified for students with disabilities. Many did not receive the services they were entitled to by law. Staffing shortages and the lack of a sufficient plan to address loss of learning have made efforts to return to normal even more difficult. 

This reality has left students with disabilities and their families still reeling from the emotional repercussions of remote learning. 

“I just think that he would be further had he not had this blind spot of nine months of remote learning,” said Colin’s mom, Jen Hammer.

Pandemic prompts recovery plans for students with disabilities

Students with disabilities, such as Hammer, have an individualized education program – a legal document explaining the services the student needs in order to get a fair and appropriate public education. Obtaining an IEP involves evaluations and an eligibility meeting with families, school staff, and other specialists before creating an individualized plan to address the student’s needs. 

But during virtual schooling, meeting IEPs became much more challenging, so many students didn’t receive the services they were entitled to by law. Some kids just disappeared during remote learning. They didn’t show up online, and their parents weren’t responsive.

IEPs are supposed to be reevaluated each year, but by the time many districts returned to in-person school, some students had not had an updated IEP since 2019. 

In order to address the ensuing learning loss, districts across the country implemented “recovery services” to identify gaps in a student’s learning as a result of the pandemic and make a plan to catch them back up to where they would have been. 

But Jen Hammer said this is problematic because her son “didn’t learn anything.” 

“You can’t measure regression against zero,” she said.

Christa Blatt, assistant director of special education at District 122 in New Lenox where Colin attends school, said the district monitors kids with IEPs regularly to ensure they’re making progress toward their goals. If a student is not reaching their goals, she said, they would adjust their approach to that student’s learning. 

Even if a child lost skills, regression can be hard to prove. Since it was tougher to collect data on students’ skills during the pandemic, it can be tricky to demonstrate how they regressed in a particular area over time. 

Chicago Public Schools implemented its own recovery services program in spring 2022. Under that plan, a student would be eligible for services only if a school could provide data showing a student regressed during remote learning. It wasn’t not enough to have not improved; there needed to be actual loss of skill. 

“The greatest factor is the level of regression in most of the kids,” Victor Williamson, a district representative for the Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services (ODLSS) for Chicago Public Schools, said over the summer. “That’s been the greatest adjustment we’ve had to do because, in looking at the level of regression of skills, now we have to factor in skill loss due to a lack of learning.”

Natasha Carlsen, a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools, struggles with this standard. She thinks kids should progress, not just stagnate. 

“I have incoming third graders that still have yet to master their letters,” she said. “But to the district-made guidelines, they don’t qualify for recovery services. The district’s interpretation of that is they would say those students don’t qualify because they had never retained their letters, and so they didn’t regress because of COVID.” 

“The recovery services system, if carried out effectively, would only return a student to where they were in March of 2020,” said William Hrabe, an attorney who focuses on special education and one of the leaders of the Special Education Advocacy Coalition of Chicago. 

He pointed out that the design of the system means that even “in a best-case scenario,” a student would still be two to three years behind where they should be in school. 

Another problem is the lack of knowledge about the recovery services program. There are nearly 50,000 students in Chicago Public Schools with IEPs, but according to data obtained by Chalkbeat through a Freedom of Information request, only 281 students requested recovery services during the 2021-22 school year. About half – 129 – received them. 

But these problems are not unique to Chicago, Hrabe said. 

For example, M. Smith, who asked to be identified by her first initial, lives in Peoria and has three children with IEPs in second, seventh, and tenth grades. All three are supposed to get speech therapy, but because they didn’t regress in their skills, they didn’t get therapy over the summer.  

“They didn’t offer speech therapy because, this is the most ridiculous thing, if they don’t see regression in the school year with speech therapy, they won’t offer it in the summer,” Smith said. 

The Illinois State Board of Education declined to make anyone available for an interview. Chicago Public Schools also declined and did not answer emailed questions. Peoria Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment. 

Shortages among staff who help students with disabilities

Without an effective recovery services program, the duty to catch these kids up may fall on special education teachers. 

“We don’t have magic,” said Joanna Nacionales, a special education teacher at Monroe Elementary School in Logan Square. “Kid doesn’t know how to read, we’ll make them practice reading. Kid doesn’t know how to count, we’ll have them count. In terms of like foundational skills for the kids, there’s no magic formula. We don’t have the magic powers.”

But staffing shortages across departments in Chicago Public Schools are only making these efforts even more difficult. 

“There’s sort of this pervasive issue where there’s underfunding, understaffing throughout the district, and that leads to students not getting their services,” Hrabe said. 

This problem is especially noticeable among special education teachers. Over the summer, the Chicago Public Schools online careers page posted 31 openings for special education teachers and special education classroom assists in one day. 

Across the district’s 500-plus schools, there are more than 10,000 special education positions budgeted. But as of the first day of school, more than 700 positions had yet to be filled, according to Chicago Public Schools staffing data obtained by Chalkbeat Chicago through a Freedom of Information request.  

The district also has a shortage of district representatives, who make sure the IEP process runs smoothly, is on time, and catered to each student’s individual needs. 

There are 24 district reps, even though the district budgeted for 43, according to Chicago Public Schools staffing data. There’s high turnover, Williamson said, and it’s hard to find people for the job. He said the district lost a lot of staff due to the pandemic, either those who died of COVID or left work because they were scared of catching it. 

As a result, there are networks of Chicago schools that don’t have a district rep at all, meaning other reps have to pick up the slack, leaving less time to devote to each school, each IEP, and each kid with individual needs. 

Staffing shortages are an additional barrier for an especially vulnerable group of learners, students who have already struggled over the past two and a half years and are now working to make up the time they lost in remote school. 

Emotional repercussions linger for students with disabilities

When schools opened their doors this fall, there was a renewed sense of normalcy. But not everyone could see March 2020 fading into the rearview mirror. 

The loss of services and shortage of staff have added an additional layer of stress to the lives of students with disabilities and their families. To them, the emotional repercussions of the pandemic and remote learning are ever-present. 

A lot of districts, Hrabe said, seem to be moving on with the hopes that students with disabilities will eventually catch up.

The real question, he said, is how the state is going to approach this regression. 

“Are we just going to accept the fact that a lot of students lost one to two years of school and sort of just move on?” Hrabe said. “Or are we going to make a concerted effort to address those shortcomings?

As schools have begun another in-person year, many families are happy to return to some semblance of normalcy and are seeing their kids’ behavior improving. But that doesn’t mean they have the skills that they should. 

“Now, we just kind of have to work with where we’re at,” Jen Hammer said. 

For some students, the impacts of remote learning have stuck around. 

Twenty-year-old Janai Vasquez has autism and ADHD, but she also developed anxiety and depression during the pandemic. 

“It was difficult to learn how to survive it,” she said. “I got really frustrated and upset and not in the mood.”

When she feels paranoid or scared, Vasquez said, her hands start shaking and she feels tightness in her chest. She’s enrolled in a transition program at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Roscoe Village and, because of her age, will soon no longer be eligible for services under the law. 

She struggled with remote learning so much that sometimes she would hyperventilate until she temporarily stopped breathing. Transitioning back to in-person learning has helped, but the anxiety and depression remain. 

Vasquez is not alone in still feeling the effects of remote learning. 

Leo, a 9-year-old in Wicker Park, has ADHD, anxiety, and a sensory processing disorder. When the pandemic hit, he was attending a private Montessori school. But his mom felt it was a poor fit for a neurodivergent kid, and remote learning was a huge challenge.

“I learned more in person because when I have ADHD, I learn more with my eyes,” Leo said. “I wasn’t learning anything, and we took so many breaks.”

Leo switched to another private school for just one semester before changing schools again. This fall, he started fourth grade at A.N. Pritzker School in Wicker Park. 

“I really hope that Pritzker is a good school,” Leo said this summer. “I really love learning.” 

Samantha Smylie contributed reporting.

Jane Vaughan is a freelance writer. Contact Jane at janevaughan2022@u.northwestern.edu

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