California should push harder for special education during school closures, disability rights groups say

Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

The tips, resources and encouragement state education officials are offering schools as they provide special education during the school closures is not enough, according to some disability rights organizations.

What is needed are executive orders and legislation to push schools and districts to help special education students get the support they need during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a list of recommendations from 15 disability rights groups sent last week to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

“It’s an emergency situation. We understand that, but we really need districts to step up and help the students who are most vulnerable,” said Malhar Shah, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities and one of the groups that signed the letter. “The state needs to do more than just offer guidance. It needs to provide oversight.”

The letter was submitted by the ACLU of California, Children’s Defense Fund of California, National Center for Youth Law and other organizations.

About 795,000 students with autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy and other conditions are enrolled in special education in California.

Since schools closed in mid-March, special education has been inconsistent across the state. Some districts began offering online instruction, therapy and parent meetings immediately, while others have yet to launch any services while they deliver tablets, arrange internet service for students and teach staff how to deliver online instruction.

The California Department of Education has provided guidance and a webinar for districts, schools, teachers and parents of students in special education to help them navigate online learning. The U.S. Department of Education has also issued guidelines. But state and federal authority to enforce these guidelines is somewhat limited, so far, because online learning is not mandatory and many decisions about education are made at the local level.

Still, state officials should push districts harder, the groups said.

“We understand there’s a balance between the state’s authority and local control. That said, these are federal civil rights we’re talking about,” said Jill Rowland, education program director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights, an advocacy group based in Sacramento and Los Angeles. “When something like this happens, we have to take care of our entire community, including the needs of our most vulnerable kids.”

The California Department of Education did not respond to requests seeking comment.

The groups’ recommendations are:

  1. Require districts to create temporary individualized education programs for students during the school closures, with input from parents and adjustments for online instruction. For example, if a student ordinarily receives one-on-one behavioral therapy an hour per week, but that’s not possible during the school closure, a temporary plan could require 30 minutes instead. When schools re-open, students should return to their original plan.
  2. Ensure students in special education receive tablets, internet access, software and other technology needed for them to participate in online instruction. For example, if a student with cerebral palsy uses a specialized keyboard and mouse at school, they should have those devices at home, too.
  3. Shorten the timelines for obtaining technological devices, such as special keyboards, from 60 days to 30 days.
  4. Provide tutoring, after-school programs and other help for students when school re-opens to help them catch up academically. Special education students are more likely to fall behind during the school closures, according to the groups’ letter, and will need extra help to make up for time lost in the classroom.
  5. Extend deadlines for parents to file complaints about their child’s education services until after schools re-open. Otherwise, parents have limited access to documents and other materials to back up their claims.
  6. Allow students to stay enrolled in school, even if they’ve aged out of the system. Ordinarily, special education students can stay in school until they’re 22. If they turn 22 when their school is closed, they should be able to stay enrolled for however long their school was closed after their birthday.

Kristen Power, government relations director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the primary signatory on the letter, said her group has not yet received a response from the state. But she’s hopeful that at least some of the recommendations will be implemented as legislative and budget meetings continue over the next few weeks.

“Things are moving so quickly, and right now there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “We have to be very nimble and responsive. But so far the conversations have all been positive and we think there’s some momentum toward the next steps.”

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