By Laura Schram, Ph.D.
According to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to a free public education appropriate to their needs. As of the 2018-19 school year, 14 percent of public-school students nationwide received special education services under IDEA. Children with disabilities and special educational needs receive services from a range of AAPS district specialists — occupational therapists, paraprofessionals, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, and speech language pathologists.
In multiple messages from AAPS leadership in July, AAPS assured families there was a plan to accommodate their children in an equitable, public-health informed way. In her July 23, 2020 email communication to AAPS parents, Superintendent Swift stated that AAPS was creating a “Connection+ Plus Supports” program. The email communication described the program as follows: “AAPS students with the most needs will be provided additional connections and support in small group settings to ensure real-time student and family supports are delivered. Connection+ Supports are tailored for those students for whom accessing virtual learning presents the greatest challenge. This network of support groups will occur virtually and/or in-person at in-neighborhood community locations, using a safe and socially-distanced approach, dependent on COVID infection circumstances.” On July 27, parents were again reassured in an email from Dr. Swift that AAPS was “working diligently, both internally and with community partners, to extend virtual and face-to-face support groups for students who require additional support to engage and families who are most at-risk within a virtual school environment.”
The parents of thousands of children with special educational needs read these communications and believed their children would be supported by AAPS district specialists through Connection+ Supports. Michigan Data Portrait indicates that there are 2,290 students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) eligible under IDEA in AAPS. The number of students receiving accommodations under Section 504 is not publicly reported. However, the National Service Inclusion Project estimates that about 20% of the population have some form of disability. While not all students with disabilities require 504 supports, it is likely that another 1,000 students in AAPS fall under the protections of Section 504.
Yet, as of mid-October, only 250 AAPS students are receiving support through Connections+ Supports, and not all students receiving support under Connections+ Supports are those with disabilities. This means that at best, roughly 8% of students with special educational needs are getting services through Connections+ Supports. Thus, the vast majority of students — over 90% — with special educational needs are receiving no small group connections or in-person safe and socially-distanced supports and have not heard about support through Connections+ Supports.
While district specialists are doing their very best to support students with special educational needs virtually, unfortunately, a virtual learning environment cannot meet students’ needs in many cases. In at-home settings, parents cannot replace the in-person expertise of the myriad AAPS professionals who provide individualized support to children with a range of special educational needs. Below are several examples of anonymized (to protect student identity) real AAPS students’ stories whose needs are unmet with virtual learning:
According to IDEA, children with special educational needs are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, with the support they require to learn, in the least restrictive environment possible. AAPS is failing to meet their obligation to provide a free and appropriate education for children with special educational needs.
Many parents of children with disabilities in AAPS, desperate to get their children’s needs met, are paying for in-person occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, paraprofessionals, etc. Others, such as parents of children with ADHD in desperate need of a structured learning environment, are paying for in-person community programs such as the YMCA Learning Labs or expensive individual executive function coaching. Families of children with sensory needs and ADHD are purchasing costly sensory tools for their home learning spaces. Families of children with learning disabilities are purchasing supplementary curriculum materials in order to provide education in the home setting to address learning loss from and lack of engagement with the virtual classroom environment.
One family in the district estimated that they will spend over $50,000 this academic year on in-person services (such as a private paraprofessional and childcare) to support their children with disabilities. Some families have experienced rejection from community support programs because their children’s needs are too great or because community service providers are at capacity.
As a result, many parents are leaving the workforce entirely to provide parent-led interventions full time, sacrificing their careers and their families’ long-term financial health. Just in September, the Labor Department reported that 865,000 women over 20 dropped out of the American workforce. In addition to these significant financial costs, the emotional and physical labor expended by the parents of children with special educational needs is taking a significant toll on parents’ well-being, particularly their mental health.
AAPS is also failing to meet the promise of its equity plan, which says AAPS “strives to create a learning community free of barriers, biases, and disproportionality for each and every person regardless of personal characteristics and social circumstances.” Although parents of children with disabilities that have good health insurance and flexible, high-paying jobs are able to purchase additional resources and in-person services to supplement the district’s meager virtual offerings, single parents and socioeconomically disadvantaged families are left with whatever parent-led interventions they can manage on their own. These children may be impacted for years as a result of stopping therapies; “children with special needs might miss their chance to develop essential skills” (Lee 2020).
In a district that prides itself on an equity-minded approach to education, many parents of children with disabilities are crying out for a reasonable return to public-health informed, in-person learning for their children. These parents are backed by recommendations from scientists and pediatricians. National reports by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both recommend reopening schools wherever possible for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Parents of students with special educational needs insist the AAPS comply with their obligation under Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by providing a clear plan for free and appropriate education opportunities to meet the individualized, unique needs of children eligible for special education supports and services. This includes offering in-person learning options. As a first step, AAPS should immediately accommodate all students with special educational needs that requested to participate in Connection+ Supports through small group connections or in-person safe and socially-distanced supports.