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Seattle special education students have gone months with few services. Will fall be different?

caption: Thurgood Marshall Elementary School is shown on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Seattle.
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Thurgood Marshall Elementary School is shown on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Parents of students in special education are bracing for another round of remote learning. They want answers about how Seattle Public Schools plans to serve students with disabilities after five months with few services.

Families in three other districts have filed a lawsuit against the state.

Cherylynne Crowther’s 15-year-old son Max has been diagnosed with chromosomal disorder and autism. Before Covid, his typical school day might include a social skills lesson with a speech therapist, an adaptive PE class, and aides helping him with his work in his special education classes.

When Seattle Public Schools closed due to the coronavirus in mid-March, Crowther knew it would be hard for Max to maintain all of the special education services and support he gets at school.

Max's sister is not enrolled in special education. After one month into Seattle's school closure, she settled into a rhythm with her high school classes and was in close touch with her teachers.

Max, meanwhile, still had not heard from all of his teachers or any therapists, Crowther said.

“It finally dawned on me that I was going to really have to replicate the special education team,” she said.

By the last day of school in June, she said, her son had still received hardly any services from the district. Crowther is co-vice-president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA. She said she knows many parents who have had similar experiences.

“It was just kind of astonishing how little attention seems to be paid in terms of how [the district is] delivering special education services (during the pandemic)," Crowther said.

She is now worried about what is to come as the district begins a new school year remotely, with no clear signs that Max will get the services he needs.

Distance learning did not work for many students this spring, regardless of ability level. But districts have specific legal responsibilities when it comes to teaching students with disabilities: they are required to meet special education students’ educational needs to the best of their ability, even in a pandemic.

Concie Pedroza, who oversees special education as chief of student supports for Seattle Schools, declined an interview request. In a written statement she said that in the spring “staff were focused on providing resources and modifications to students so that they could make progress on their [Individualized Education Program] goals.”

Pedroza acknowledged that there were some issues, stating: “Throughout the first few weeks of school closure, we recognize that there was a slight disruption in services while we worked to get devices and technology to our staff and students to support remote learning.”

It was more than a “slight disruption in services,” said one district special education teacher, who asked to have her name withheld for fear of retaliation.

“We were told not to deliver specially-designed instruction,” she said, adding they were not allowed to adapt lessons to each child’s needs, as federal law requires. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

The teacher said a district administrator told her and her colleagues that it would be inequitable to provide special education services to some students and not to all -- such as children without computers or reliable internet, or students who could not be reached by phone or email.

“Some of us found work-arounds,” the teacher said. “But we were all just floundering.”

Pedroza declined to comment on the teacher’s claims. In a statement, she said the district followed guidance from the state Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction that said “there was not an expectation that IEP services would be delivered exactly as the IEP states during the COVID-19 school facility closures.”

That guidance from OSPI is misleading, said education attorney Charlotte Cassady.

“That’s just not what [federal law] says,” Cassady said. “The guidance from agencies just muddies the water by leading schools to believe they're not required to follow the law. The shortfalls have been enormous. It’s a nationwide problem.”

A push for better tech and training

This week, families in Normandy Park, Olympia, and Tacoma filed a lawsuit against OSPI and the State Board of Education for failing to ensure that districts continue to provide special education services during the emergency closure. There are related class-action lawsuits on behalf of special education students pending in Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

In Seattle Public Schools, many families are calling for improved use of technology because what the district used in the spring, and how teachers used it, often did not work for students with disabilities.

Mary Taylor’s son, who's going into sixth grade, has ADHD, and doctors tell her he’s possibly on the autism spectrum. Like most students, his assignments in the spring were posted on the website Schoology, which Taylor calls “an absolutely mind-boggling online system.”

“I mean, there are links embedded within links embedded within tabs. I'm sitting down with him trying to figure out -- ‘OK, well, click 18 different things to get to this actual course content,’” Taylor said.

“They just threw everything on there and said, ‘Teachers, parents, kids - good luck.’ It is definitely not something that kids can figure it out on their own,” she said.

Although teenagers are often expected to be digitally-savvy enough to navigate digital coursework, parents of teens with disabilities said that the technology was often so clunky and confusing that even at the high school level they had to oversee their teens’ schoolwork to make sure they were on top of all of their assignments.

Most children with disabilities are in at least some general education classes. But some parents said their kids were excluded from participating in things like online class meetings due to a lack of attention to their needs -- especially deaf and hard-of-hearing students, said Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA.

“Simple things like turning off the chat function on Zoom class sessions, not having participants state their name before beginning to speak and not arranging for the [sign language] interpreter to be visible when the teacher shared the screen put deaf and hard-of-hearing students at a major disadvantage,” White said.

Staff and families will need much more training in the technology they are expected to use for remote learning this fall if it is to be much more successful than the frustrating spring many slogged through, said Connor Lee, a special education instructional assistant at Louisa Boren STEM K-8.

“We're all still learning how to do remote learning, and asking staff and students to return and start trying to get academic content without teaching us how to do remote learning first isn't going to work very well,” Lee said.

He also takes issue with the fall daily schedules for students that the district has proposed: several straight hours of live, online teaching four mornings a week. That plan, Lee said, is developmentally inappropriate for many students with disabilities.

“There isn't anything concrete in it for what accommodations are made for special education students. And so once again, I think they have been deprioritized, and are an afterthought, and they will be left up to [their educators] to figure it out,” Lee said.

The district has not yet announced how much training will be available for staff before the school year begins, or how special education students will be accommodated. Those issues are part of ongoing negotiations with the teachers union.

Seattle Schools has proposed allowing some special education students to receive in-person instruction and other services this fall. While some families say they’re not ready to risk coronavirus exposure, others are desperate for their children to once again be face-to-face with educators and therapists.

Before that happens, Lee said, the district first needs to show staff and families how it can be done safely. Decisions about which students are served in-person -- and which services they receive -- need to be standardized, he said, at the district level, in order to assure equity.

Some parents say that, while their child hasn’t been receiving the usual services and supports, they feel grateful to teachers who have worked hard to do what they can given the circumstances.

Tripti Baliga said her son’s special education teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School has sent daily YouTube videos of herself reading a book or doing a circle time, even during the summer.

“Even though it's not part of the curriculum -- it's not part of the official summer learning program -- that's something that she just chose to do on her own accord,” Baliga said. “Of course it doesn't replace face-to-face instruction. But that worked wonderfully for my son, and he looked forward to the YouTube video and he watched it every single day.”

Whether or not families have been satisfied with what schools have offered their special education students, none of the 16 families KUOW interviewed reported that their children had received anywhere near the usual supports and services.

When districts fall short on services they have promised students with disabilities, they are legally obligated to provide the student with compensatory services. It's a laborious and expensive prospect, said education attorney Charlotte Cassady.

“We're going to have a much bigger problem when school districts finally do start dealing with [special education students’] needs,” Cassady said, because it can take much longer for students to catch up on what they’ve missed than it would to deliver services in the first place.

“For example, when a child misses two weeks of school due to illness, it can take much longer than two weeks to catch up. And this is even more true, in general, for special needs students.”

Cassady and other Seattle education attorneys said they already have numerous families turning to them to demand make-up lessons and therapies for what was lost in the spring, as well as more appropriate instruction this fall.

For the many special education students who are low-income, however, attorneys are not affordable options. What will make the difference for them, said Seattle Special Education PTSA President Janis White, is the district reaching out to families to find out what their students need.

White said so far, there has been no clear sign that the district has made the necessary changes to serve students “to the greatest extent possible” during remote learning, as federal law requires.

“Aspirational statements are fine as far as they go, but they are only worth as much as the actual services offered and experience of students,” White said.

“I am concerned and fearful about what the school year holds,” White said, for the 15% of Seattle Public Schools students who need special education services.

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