Education

New York City falls short on special education planning

Plans for schooling in a pandemic is hard, but mistakes with special education can have dire consequences.

NYC children will be heading back to school on Sep. 10, how will schools accommodate special needs students?

NYC children will be heading back to school on Sep. 10, how will schools accommodate special needs students? rblfmr/Shutterstock

School in New York City is set to start on Sept. 10, but teachers and city officials are still feuding over reopening plans and in-person learning arrangements are being determined in real time. And that’s just for students in general education classes. Accommodations for special-needs students will be even more complicated, with even greater risk of educational loss. 

The switch to remote learning in the spring to stem the spread of the coronavirus had a particularly adverse impact on the city’s 200,000 special education students, whose related services and educational needs did not always translate well, or at all, to remote learning. 

As the school year fast approaches, figuring out how best to implement safe and effective education is paramount, but the need to get it right is even more dire for those receiving special education – and advocates say that the city could be doing more to ensure those kids are getting all the services they need.

The state reopening guidelines requires that local school districts take into account the individual and specific needs of special education students when coming up with their plans for the fall, whether in-person, online or both. When New York City released its plan for reopening, guidance on special education was slim. It provides for two additional potential schedules for District 75 schools – which exclusively serve special education students – and parents to opt into besides the all-remote or blended options. One permits students to attend in-person class five days a week every other week, while the other would allow certain qualifying students to attend in-person schooling completely full time, although this would not be an option for every special education student. But aside from those extra models, information about how services would be provided adequately and remotely lacked the specifics that many parents want. Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education, said in a statement that the city would be “sharing additional special education guidance and safety protocols for the upcoming school year soon.”

Maggie Moroff, the special education policy coordinator with the group Advocates for Children of New York, said that the city could be doing more. “It’s an outline of a plan,” Moroff said. “The concern is that there is just so much that nobody knows yet.” She said this is especially complicated for parents of special education students when it comes to scheduling services like occupational therapy.

Her group recently released a series of recommendations, including a request for information about student transportation, multiple options for in-person related services, assurance that all students have the technology needed for remote learning and small-group support for students struggling to read on days they are remote. “That literacy part is really key,” Moroff said. “Especially for the kids that are in the emergent reading years, if they were already struggling to learn how to read, this has wreaked havoc on their lives.” The Department of Education says it is currently exploring ways to expand literacy programs, using teachers trained to provide such education and training additional teachers to fill the role.

Overall, Moroff said that the city needs to insure that parents have as much information as they need to make the best decisions for their special education students because the stakes are so much higher. “The more typical children are struggling too, but they’re hopefully treading water in all of this,” Moroff said. “The fear is that the kids that need the additional support, that they’re getting pulled down.”

Advocates for Children of New York is also calling for the option of full-time in-person learning for any special education student that wants it, whether at a District 75 school or a general education school with self-contained special education classes. Moroff said that switching back and forth between remote and in-person learning, especially if it entails changes in scheduling from week to week, can be detrimental to some special education students. While some parents may be able to make the blended option work, and for others fully remote is a sufficient option, Moroff said it’s important that full-time in-person is available for anyone who feels that in-person classes are the only way to ensure their child is receiving the services to which they are entitled. “It's hard to make generalizations, but families we've spoken to, some of the kids are having trouble with just the location change, some of them are having trouble with the scheduling changes, some of them are having trouble with the formatting changes,” Moroff said. “It’s been really, really hard on these families.”

The recommendations said that since special education classes have always been small, made smaller with the students opting for fully remote and blended learning, so it would be easy to maintain social distancing requirements in the generally larger classrooms for students who might choose to return to school full time should the city decide to implement the proposal. However, other obstacles remain, such as the need for personal one-on-one interactions that would require teachers to be in close to proximity with different students, and the possibility that some special education students would not have the capacity to understand safety measures like masks. “Health and safety for our school communities comes first and we are encouraging as much in-person instruction and related services to students with disabilities as possible, while also complying with social distancing guidelines,” Filson said of the city’s approach to special education. 

While she feels the option should be there, Moroff said that full-time in-person services are not the solution for everyone, especially since those that might benefit the most often have the most complicated needs that could also make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Depending on their needs, some students may actually benefit from remote learning and the absence from some of the social aspects of a classroom that can make education more difficult. She added that many of Advocate for Children of New York’s clients tend to be lower-income people who have fewer options for childcare and support when parents are working during the school day, which becomes even more complicated if parents must step in to help provide services normally given by trained professionals. That’s a big reason why Moroff said that parents should be part of the planning process for the fall. “If the family can't play the role that they need to play, then it's just set up to fail,” Moroff said of remote learning plans. “So you really need to involve families at the onset to figure out what's realistic in their home and with their family.”

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