Navigating Special Education During COVID

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This photo has nothing to do with this post, but might be a glimpse of what our Fall will look like!

There have been certain points in our experience with Solly where I sit down in tears on my couch and scream, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard!” Usually this is a statement reserved for fights with insurance companies for refusing to cover durable medical equipment or procedures, disagreements with doctors who want to stick a label on him and tell me what he can’t or won’t be able to do, or conversations with random, ignorant strangers who feel my son should be placed in an institution (for the record, this last type of conversation happens very infrequently – most conversations with strangers are kind and often uplifting – but when they do happen, man, it stings.)

Lately, I’ve been fretting and losing sleep over another topic: school.

Life is difficult for everyone these days. There’s so much uncertainty in the air, conflicting messages about how to stay safe and what you should or shouldn’t do during a global pandemic, and on top of everything else, kids are heading back to school.

In California, the vast majority of school districts are starting in an a distance learning model given the high community transmission rate of COVID. Before our Governor made the announcement that all schools in high-risk counties could not open for in-person classes, our school district was planning on providing two models of education: full-distance or a hybrid model, where students go to school two days a week and do distance learning the other three days. Given that we’ve learned that COVID causes blood clots and strokes, I had planned on keeping Solly at home with the distance learning option, but the Governor’s announcement put me at ease knowing that Solly’s classmates would be learning from home as well.

Earlier this year, when I provided an update about how we were doing in the time of COVID, I wrote this regarding Solly’s school situation:

Fast forward to March 2020, I submitted a request for an IEP assessment with our school district so we can begin planning for Solly to begin school in the Fall. Thirteen days later – two days before we should have received an initial response to begin in-person assessments, the school system shut down in response to COVID-19. Because assessments must be done in-person, I feared for the worst: Solly starting Kindergarten without any supports (an aide, special education, a paraeducator, therapies, an emergency plan if a seizure occurs in school, and so on) in place. Fortunately, when I followed up with the school district and voiced my concerns, they not only ensured me that he would have the necessary supports in place in the Fall, regardless of whether or not the IEP was finalized by day 1, but they encouraged me to send in all assessments and evaluations that I have in his files so they could begin formulating a plan for Solly. One of the reasons we chose to move to the sweet neighborhood we now live in is because of the highly-respected school district, and it’s already clear that this choice was a good one.

Even with schools opening for distance learning only, I figured the district would be able to do some sort of IEP assessment virtually so Solly would have all the support and services in place when he started kindergarten. After all, the district stated in March that he would have the necessary support in place in the Fall.

Then, last week, during a Q&A Zoom call for parents of special education students, a Mom who was in the exact same position as I am – she’d also requested an IEP assessment in the days before schools shut down due to COVID – asked the questions that were on the tip of my tongue, “How will my son be assessed since schools won’t be opening up? How can he get the support he needs? Am I to believe that he has to start the school year with nothing in place?” and the response she received shook me to my core: “He can’t be assessed. There will be no support or services for him until schools physically open.” Considering there’s a good chance schools won’t physically open at all this semester or perhaps even for the year, this means our students with documented disabilities who don’t currently have an IEP in place will be treated as part of the general education population when they should be entitled to services and support under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

How can this be? Well, schools districts are following a clause in California Senate Bill 117 that was signed by Governor Newsom in March to protect funding for schools, back when the thought was schools would temporarily be shuttered for a few weeks or, at worst, through the end of the Spring this past school year. Regarding assessments, the Bill specifically states:

Extends Timelines for Proposed Assessment Plans for Special Education Students
Existing law establishes a 15 day timeline for LEA’s to prepare a proposed assessment plan after referral of a pupil for assessment to determine if the pupil is an individual with exceptional needs. This 15 day timeline excludes calendar days between the pupil’s regular school sessions or terms and calendar days of school vacations in excess of five days. SB 117 requires the CDE to consider the days a school is closed due to COVID-19 as “days between the pupil’s regular school sessions” for purposes of the 15-day timeline to prepare a proposed assessment plan. Thus, the 15 day timeline to prepare a proposed assessment plan stops running at the time the school closes due to COVID-19. The timelines will begin to run again when the school reopens and the regular school session reconvenes.

While I understand the necessity of this clause back in March, the fact that this is still in place now does not seem legal to me. I believe this violates the terms set forth in IDEA.

To the defense of our school district, we were told that we could work with our child’s teacher to come up with some sort of plan in the interim, however we don’t know when we will learn who our child’s teacher will be, and school starts in three weeks from tomorrow. These plans often take a lot of discussion and planning to be put in place. I’m not confident this can be done in time, but I hope I am proven wrong.

At the suggestion of our special education advocate, I wrote the school district last week, requesting that they put a plan in writing that will provide support, both for Solomon’s education and for me, since I’ll be facilitating all of his education; accommodations, like providing print outs of all work since working on a tablet will be difficult for Solly; and leniency in attendance records, so Solly can continue to attend weekly and intensive therapy at NAPA. At the time of publishing this post, I have heard nothing back from the district. Crickets.

While I understand that everyone, especially school administrators and teachers, are working so hard to make distance learning a possibility – let me repeat that, I know this is hard for everyone and I know everyone is trying to do their best – I also am the Mom of a special needs child who needs support and accommodations to get the same education as his peers, and I believe that he shouldn’t have to suffer or lose an education because of his disability. Hopefully the school district will keep up their end of the bargain and will work with us to put these supports in place in the interim until a formal assessment is in place. If this is the case, I will provide an update and guidance for other parents who are in a similar scenario.

Until then, I’ll continue to sit on my couch and scream, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard.”

9 thoughts on “Navigating Special Education During COVID

  1. Jen says:

    Hey Cami, I know that you have your hands full, but have you considered reaching out to your state reps apprising them of the situation and seeing if there is anything they can do to help? The change in policy seems horrible and I agree that it doesn’t seem entirely legal.

    Like

    • Camie says:

      Hi! That’s a good question. Yes, I’ve considered it, but no, I haven’t actually tried reaching out, mostly because I don’t know who to reach out to (yet), so need to start researching. I sent an email this morning to an LA Times reporter who covers education in California and contributed to some earlier pieces on special ed, with hopes that it’s worth doing a story on, but I suspect I’ll have to send lots of letters to raise awareness before anything happens.

      Like

      • Jen says:

        That’s really frustrating. I know I’ve seen some articles in our local paper about how families w kids w special needs are also pretty much being screwed by a lack of specialized support during the pandemic. I wonder if the ACLU might be able to provide any support? Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. I probably can’t do much, as I’m out in Maryland, but happy to do anything I can. My email is brown.jennifer.e@gmail.com.

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  2. Jaren says:

    Hi! Just thinking about you and wondering if there has been any update for Solly’s accommodations for school?

    I have a few tips that a group of parents did here in Ohio. It worked.
    Call me 💜

    Like

    • Camie says:

      Hi! We’ve pulled him from school and will start homeschooling today. The district offered a partial IEP, based off of medical records and an interview with me, but no in person assessment. We decided that since Solly in person and Solly on paper are two very different people and he’ll have trouble accessing education virtually (our only option here), we decided it was a better use of his time to do a private in person assessment, ramp up his private therapies, and homeschool this year.

      Like

    • Camie says:

      That’s a really good question. I don’t know! I feel like I’ve taken a crash course in CA special education over the past few weeks and I clearly still have so much to learn. I’ll look and see if this is an option here. Thank you!

      Like

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