Parents, extended school year, and legal knowledge are key
The impact of school closures upon students may well be an issue for years to come. The Biden administration has approved a new round of support in the American Rescue Plan for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER III)—providing about $122 billion in funding for K-12 schools, with $3 billion planned for students with disabilities; districts must also “reserve not less than 20 percent to address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions,” according to Whiteboard Advisors. Some of the funds have also been targeted for supporting student connectivity in the home, which will be key to sustaining equitable, remote learning solutions into the future. This is on top of the billion relief package, approved in December under the CRRSAA Act (ESSER II), which includes funding for special education-related services.
COVID-19: Gaps in Education
Why such sweeping measures? The work ahead is consequential. A new study from a nonprofit organization estimates that “for approximately 3 million of the most educationally marginalized students in the country, March  might have been the last time they experienced any formal education—virtual or in-person.” Another report out of New York City, the nation’s largest school district, offers one of the most comprehensive pictures yet of special education during the pandemic, finding that “nearly a quarter of New York City’s students with disabilities have not received all of the services they’re entitled to this school year.”
For students with special needs, learning loss and regression due to a lack of services during the pandemic necessitate “compensatory services,” otherwise known as “recovery services,” to provide therapy (including speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral and mental health services and assessments) that was listed in a student’s individualized education program (IEP) and not received, or to help manage a regression in skills. These services are required by law as part of ensuring free access to public education (FAPE) and protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)—for good reason.
“Students with special needs are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of gaps in education,” said Robert Avossa, former superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools and current president of K-12 Leadership Matters. “When they don’t receive the services they require and depend upon, they can lose critical skills that may hinder their ability to communicate effectively or even their ability to function independently. Making up for lost services is critical for these students. Making a plan to prevent interruptions in the future is critical for schools—both legally and morally.”
Avossa noted that equity in access to services, across disabilities, has been an issue for schools, with the most complex cases too often receiving the least amount of services during the pandemic. The goal for schools, he says, is to start 2021–2022 as caught up as they can be, across special education and general education. They should also have a school improvement plan in place for managing the ongoing impact of the pandemic and opportunities ahead—including drawing upon some of the innovative approaches they deployed and that worked well.
Three Steps Forward
A school’s IEP team is tasked with considering whether a child qualifies for compensatory services. If they do, the following three strategies are essential in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
Working with Parents: Communication is Critical
Working with parents of children with special needs has been critical during the pandemic and will be even more so as schools address compensatory services. The school team should be proactive and reach out to all parents of students with special needs (not just the ones who are reaching out to them), including especially the “silent majority” who are often overlooked (but could present challenges much later in the process). The more schools can be proactive about engaging parents and keeping them in-the-know about their plans—for managing learning loss and staying on top of current services—the better off they will be. Start a weekly check-in over email or a quick video conference. Make sure parents know how much you care, how you’re planning ahead, and what challenges you are sorting out. Get their input, and hear their concerns.
“The single-most important thing that schools can do as they work to help their students with disabilities to recover learning losses is to exercise extremely effective ‘PR’ skills to support effective and continuous collaboration and communication with their parents,” said Julie J. Weatherly, Esq., founder of Resolutions in Special Education (RISE), Inc., located in Mobile, Alabama.
Extended School Year: Consider Online Services
Will the student be able to meet the annual goals that the IEP team planned by the end of the school year? Did the child regress during the closures in 2020–2021? Is the child at risk for further regression or disengagement during the summer break, so that services are useful to help maintain progress? Is there a backlog of evaluations and reevaluations that need to be done in a timely manner? Have gifted screenings fallen to the wayside? If so, an extended school year may well be the right approach. But having students in the school building this summer may be less appealing for them and for school staff members, who have together experienced one of the most challenging years in education’s history.
Schools may instead consider live, online services on a high-quality teletherapy platform to extend their school team during the summer months, provide recovery services, and ensure continuity of services (now and in the future). Chatham County Schools in North Carolina is one of many school teams that has used teletherapy with a significant portion of their students during the pandemic and seen encouraging results. In fact “some students flourished using the PresenceLearning platform, where they had previously been working more slowly during in-person services,” according to Debbie Daugherty MA-SLP-CCC, lead Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). The school is now considering the advantages of offering live, online compensatory services during the summer, again using PresenceLearning’s platform and potentially adding support from its clinical network. Parents will have the choice for their children, but there may be benefits in the online format.
“A huge pro of the online approach is having the flexibility to ensure services can take place, without needing to contract additional providers for in-person services for some students,” said Melvin Diggs, executive director of the school district’s Exceptional Children (EC) and Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) programs. “We are trying to innovate and stay ahead of the curve.”
There are generally two ways that live, online services can help schools address compensatory services and navigate ongoing uncertainty in the year (or years) ahead:
- Home-based: Online services bring the flexibility of supporting the student in the home or school environment. At home, the student can connect with their school team or a provider who has partnered with the school district to deliver live services online. A parent or caregiver may provide onsite support.
- School-based: For students who may not have access to the Internet at home or who may need online services to complement their in-person care in the school setting, an online format can be beneficial. An online provider can help extend the school team and open up access to a broader network of providers with specialized skills. It can also help schools manage the backlog of services and assessments they must provide as a result of the pandemic.
“Choosing remote services to diversify your service offerings can increase staff, student, and parent happiness. Schools can scale and customize a hybrid solution however they see fit. Having online providers manage the things that can be done remotely—many assessments for example—can free up the onsite team to focus on those support services that must be done in-person,” said Stephanie Taylor, Ed.S, NCSP, clinical director of psychoeducational services at PresenceLearning.
Addressing Legal Requirements: Be Methodical
When it comes to the legal requirements of compensatory services during COVID-19 (and ramifications if they’re not provided), attorney Julie Weatherly advises that schools be methodical and follow an organized process for determining the need for services. She suggests they prioritize the following measures to stay ahead of the curve and to ensure compliance:
- Gather data: Appropriate and sufficient data must form the basis upon which all decisions about addressing learning loss will be based, including data that can be obtained online and from parents.
- Use data: Before determining whether “compensatory services” are needed, present levels or “current needs” must first be determined and adjustments made to IEPs accordingly.
- Prioritize: Determinations must be prioritized. IEP meetings for the most obviously impacted students should occur first.
- Analyze: In determining whether “compensatory services” will be provided, teams should address whether providing services over and above current needs will be overwhelming or even detrimental for the student.
- Keep records: The provision of “compensatory services” must be documented and monitored.
- Maximize funding: Schools and special education directors should seek to leverage all of their CARES act funding, as well as any of the typical IDEA funding that is available as well.
At the end of the day, recovering every hour lost during the pandemic, while also providing regular services, may prove challenging (if not impossible) for schools. School leadership, in partnership with their special education director and team, will need to make individual decisions based upon where each student is. Avossa adds that, in general, he has known courts to look positively upon districts that have made every effort to provide services in the academic year in which it was lost.
“I don’t know where courts will land,” said Avossa, “but, in my experience during a regular year, every effort made by the school district is looked upon positively in the courts.”
For more information about how to provide recovery services for students with special needs now and establish a plan to sustain and accelerate learning in the years ahead, get in touch today for a consultation.