Families Can't Afford for Schools to Continue to Treat Students With Disabilities Like an Afterthought

Sep 28, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Every single thing we do is challenging. My kids are being forgotten.

That’s Keri Akkawi, a Philadelphia mom of two boys with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that can cause multiple disabilities. According to their Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), her boys are supposed to receive one-on-one speech therapy, reading and math instruction, social skills training, and occupational therapy, even during the pandemic. But their services were substantially diminished during COVID-19 school disruptions — her younger son’s speech therapy was reduced to 10 minutes per week — and the boys have regressed behaviorally and academically. 

It’s not supposed to work this way for the seven million American children — 14% of all K-12 students — who are eligible for special education services. According to state and federal laws, all schools are required to fully implement the therapies and accommodations listed in each child’s IEP during COVID-19 school closures. If circumstances render that impossible, districts are supposed to provide compensatory “make-up” services. But many are not even trying and few bother pretending these districts are complying with federal law. “It would break the system of public education if we tried to compensate for everything that everyone has lost,” said Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, which represents district-level officials.

Many parents of children with disabilities, as well as advocates and researchers, regard school districts’ failures to provide legally mandated services for students classified as eligible for special education to be an ethical and regulatory failure. While education for all children was disrupted, students with disabilities suffered more, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,500 teachers conducted by the RAND Corporation last October. [pullquote]Our kids tend to be an afterthought in non-pandemic times. Now they’re victims of a widely-acknowledged boondoggle.[/pullquote]

To add insult to injury, students with disabilities, particularly those with developmental and cognitive impairments, are prone to substantial regression without necessary therapies. Suddenly the “COVID slide” — academic setbacks among neuro-typical kids due to school disruptions — becomes the COVID nosedive.

The data backs this up.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has been collecting district-specific information throughout the pandemic, including for students eligible for special education. CRPE found that 12% of all school opening plans didn’t even bother to mention special needs students and only 33% of districts surveyed had plans that included interventions or increased support for students with disabilities to address pandemic-related learning loss. In addition, districts were neglecting to educate teachers on how to support special needs students during remote instruction. Both general and special education teachers said, “they had been largely left on their own.”

Lane McKittrick, a CRPE research analyst, said,

For me as a special education parent, I know sometimes special education feels like an afterthought, and as a researcher too, it kind of feels like that as well. There’s a lot of kids who were left behind last year because we just weren’t able to serve them.

How much of an afterthought are students with disabilities?

  • An analysis in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 44% of parents of children eligible for special education reported “low satisfaction with their child[ren]'s therapy services during the pandemic.”
  • In Massachusetts, the state said schools could modify IEP’s, without requiring any sign-off from families. This led “to this whole cascading nightmare where many school districts felt they didn’t need to provide everything if they couldn’t do it in person, and they didn’t need to provide services for the same amount of time or in the same way,” leaving children and their parents in the lurch — and without the required compensatory services.
  • Fairfax County Schools in Virginia opened in-person childcare for general education children but refused to provide in-person instruction for students with disabilities.
  • Seattle Public Schools, which serves 8,000 students with disabilities, was called out for serving only one student with disabilities in-person and telling its special education teachers “not to deliver specially-designed instruction,” prohibiting them from adapting lessons to meet each child’s needs. “We have heard similar complaints from all across the country,” said Denise Stile Marshall, head of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., a group that fights on behalf of children with disabilities. “Many parents are desperate and at their wit’s end. It’s been 10 months of getting nothing or going round and round with the district for even the basics … and getting nowhere.”
  • In New York City, a group of families has filed a class action suit against the state and city education departments demanding full compensatory services. One of the students listed as a plaintiff is Caleb Bell of Harlem, who is deaf and blind. His mother 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,” said Ms. Bell. The city has moved to dismiss the lawsuit.

Students with disabilities and their families are in crisis. They can’t afford to wait for local, state, and national governments to put out other fires before they turn to their needs. And there are resources to relieve the burn, including $125 billion for K-12 education in the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan. Any parent of a child with disabilities would tell you the same: It is a moral imperative to stop treating our kids as an afterthought. Or, as Keri Akkawi would say, “stop forgetting these children.”

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...