Parents of Students With Disabilities Try to Make Up for Lost Year

In New York City, hundreds of thousands of students with disabilities didn’t receive special education services during remote learning.,

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Caleb Bell is deaf, blind and nonverbal. When classes at his Manhattan school moved online last year, Mr. Bell needed his mother’s help to answer direct questions. She’d often reach over and lift a block with a raised green circle, signifying “yes,” or a raised red X signifying “no.”

But, Mr. Bell, 21, would just sit there, disengaged.

His mother, Chrystal Bell, said her son got “nothing” from his classes and also stopped receiving many of his legally mandated special education services, or received them in a format that did not work.

“I know my child was being left behind,” Ms. Bell, 57, a Harlem resident, said.

Education experts have said that it may take months or years to fully grasp the learning loss that children have suffered from remote schooling during the pandemic. But many of the parents and guardians of the roughly 200,000 students with disabilities in New York City say they have already seen drastic damages from their children’s loss of their usual therapies, services or learning accommodations.

Each school year presents myriad challenges for the thousands of parents who file for special education services. But the shift to remote learning has “exacerbated pre-existing achievement gaps” for children with disabilities, according to a recent report by the state’s comptroller’s office.

As the New York City school year starts this week, with no remote option for most students, these parents are bracing to see just how far their children have fallen behind.

To address such gaps, the New York City Department of Education said it would spend $251 million for special education this fiscal year as part of its Academic Recovery Plan, funded by the Biden administration’s pandemic rescue stimulus package. Part of the money will be used to launch after-school and Saturday programs for all special education students, the city said.

The plan “makes unprecedented investments to support their unique needs during the year ahead,” the city’s Department of Education said in a statement.

But some families believe this won’t be enough. Many are seeking makeup services, known as compensatory education, for the services and learning their children missed during the pandemic.

Mr. Bell is one of eight students listed on a class-action lawsuit against the state and city education departments that seeks a new process for students to get compensatory education. Right now, parents who want more services than the school agrees to provide have to file a complaint and go through a hearing process. Rebecca Shore, an attorney for the plaintiffs on the lawsuit, said this process is often combative and arduous.

The city’s Department of Education has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, but declined to comment on it.

Such complaints and lawsuits have been filed across the country, largely on an individual basis rather than as part of class actions, with varying degrees of success. In Washington and Maryland, separate lawsuits resulted in compensatory education for at least some students. In New York City, some individuals who filed suit against the city received compensatory education, while others had their lawsuits dismissed.

But many families don’t have the resources or don’t know how to seek legal help.

Nasheema Miley’s autistic, largely nonverbal son, Marcellus, was saying a few words before the pandemic, thanks to the work of speech therapists at his school in Harlem.

When classes went remote, Marcellus, 5, stopped having in-person speech therapy sessions three times a week and occupational therapy twice a week. Instead, Ms. Miley, 27, said she got a phone call once a week from both therapists.

During this time, he stopped speaking completely, she said.

Marcellus went back to school full time last fall and has started making progress again, but his mother thinks he is still behind.

The family thought about filing a complaint or lawsuit, but Ms. Miley said she is unable to afford a lawyer.

“There’s so much that he’s entitled to that we can’t access without a long, tedious process,” Marcellus’s grandmother, Tanesha Grant, 45, said, explaining that the family would continue to try to work with the school instead.

This fall, Ms. Miley said the school is waiting to see how her son performs. For now, she said she feels that her only option is to try saving more money for a personal tutor.

Schools are generally against the idea of compensatory education as a solution, according to Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director for the Council of Administrators of Special Education and a retired public school educator.

While she acknowledged that many children struggled to learn remotely, she said that the pandemic is to blame, not schools, and that students are not owed what they missed. With over 7 million students in the country receiving special education services, giving every child the hours of education they missed would be a heavy, if not impossible, lift for schools that are already dealing with a shortage of special education teachers, she said.

In the 2020-21 school year, 42 states and the District of Columbia reported special education teacher shortages to the U.S. Department of Education, and in 2021-2022, 48 states and the District of Columbia reported such shortages, according to the department’s teacher shortage areas database. To fill staffing shortages, Wolfram said schools have been bringing back retired staff and using teachers that are not fully certified to teach special education.

“It’s hard to compensate in a public school setting for everything that Covid has done,” Wolfram said. “I’m not sure how its humanly possible.”

The federal Department of Education released guidance last year that said each school must determine what compensatory services are needed if a student does not receive services after an extended period of time. In theory, the money from President Biden’s rescue plan would fund some of those services.

Ms. Wolfram said families should work with schools to determine whether their child has fallen behind and how best to support them. In back to school guidance for the fall, the city Department of Education explained that its recovery plan to provide more special education services was different from compensatory services, and said that schools should “allow time for students to re-acclimate” this fall before making any changes to their special education services.

But many families across the country — especially lower-income ones — may give up or may not fight schools for more services, even if students need them, according to Leslie Margolis, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland who has worked on compensatory education cases.

“I think it’s inevitable that there are children who will be left behind and will not get the services to which they are entitled,” Ms. Margolis said.

She still recalls working with Baltimore City Schools three decades ago when about 7,000 students needed compensatory education after not receiving special education services. The backlog was too large for the school to address on a case-by-case basis, she said, so it offered a summer program to all the affected students. But only a third of eligible students participated, Ms. Margolis said.

In New York City, even before the pandemic, there was a huge backlog of special education complaints with the Department of Education, with families having to wait an average of 259 days — some over a year — to get a hearing, according to Ms. Shore.

She believes this backlog will only grow now that parents are dealing with education fallout from the pandemic.

Elizabeth Hernandez’s two daughters, Denise, 12 and Daniella, 10, both have learning disabilities. Both were doing reasonably well in their schools in Queens — until the pandemic hit.

Ms. Hernandez said her daughters started calling their mother while she was at work as a surgical assistant and surgical scheduler. She said she would run back to her office after seeing a patient and get on FaceTime with her daughters to try and help them with math problems.

“I felt like I was failing them at that point,” Ms. Hernandez said. “I couldn’t be home to help them because I had to go to work, and I had to do what I needed to do to still keep a roof over everybody’s head.”

Her daughters’ grades plummeted — and she said they continued to struggle even after transitioning back to hybrid and full-time learning last year. One day, her youngest daughter came home crying because she had received 30 percent on a math test, she said.

“And she’s like, ‘I’m trying my best. I’m trying my best,'” Ms. Hernandez recalled.

She is concerned about how her children will fare this fall. When she asked them about whether they were looking forward to returning to school, she said, her youngest daughter said, “I’m probably going to fail anyway.”

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