Like many parents, Lynn Gabriel of Los Angeles has found keeping her 6-year-old son on track with school to be a grueling endeavor during the pandemic. Last spring, between the two half-hour classes a week and worksheets exchanged on Google Classroom, Gabriel struggled to keep Benjamin engaged.
He missed his friends and basketball games at the park, but there were even more challenges. Unlike most kids, Benjamin struggles with recall, and one of his eyes has trouble focusing. That has made learning how to read frustrating for him as well as for his mother.
“I’ll tell him to sound it out,” Gabriel said. “I say, ‘Look at the word.’ But I don’t know what he sees. He learns differently, and I have no tools to figure it out.”
But over the past five months the single mom has been unable to get help from her local school district.
Prompted by stay-at-home orders and a hastily passed state law in March, many districts up and down California have not assessed students with disabilities in months, preventing them from obtaining services they need during the destabilizing times of the pandemic.
As a result, although students like Benjamin and thousands like him start school remotely in Los Angeles County on Tuesday, educational advocates say confusion reigns and there are too few plans in place for students with special needs.
Emergency measures taken in response to the pandemic allowed schools to waive timelines for special education assessments and the specific plans they prompt – such as allowing students more time on tests, or access to audiobooks or an in-class aide. But that has led to a void as classes start again.
A coalition of advocacy organizations representing vulnerable students in the state – including many foster youth and low-income students – reports that school districts are not responding to parents and guardians who are scrambling to get their children’s needs met, or they are postponing assessments until the still-uncertain date that campuses reopen.
Megan Stanton-Trehan, director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Loyola Law School, said that as school shutdowns continue indefinitely, thousands of youth entitled to special education services will suffer.
“If we get to next school year and nothing has been done,” Stanton-Trehan said, “all these kids are losing years of education with no path forward to services.”
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which first became law in 1975, requires that students with special needs are provided with the same opportunity for a “free and appropriate public education” as other students. The landmark legislation guarantees access to services like speech therapy or counseling, as well as classroom accommodations and modifications. By law, schools must quickly respond – not simply put off – a request to evaluate a child’s eligibility for special education services.
But California’s response to the pandemic has created confusion and threatened compliance with the federal law, legal experts and some parents say. As the new school year starts, Los Angeles Unified and other school districts still haven’t finalized a way to assess children remotely, leaving some children and their parents or caregivers unable to access their special education rights for months on end.
Just before the pandemic hit in March, for example, Gabriel requested an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for Benjamin, whom she adopted as an infant from foster care. But despite numerous requests, plenty of paperwork and an interview with Benjamin’s teacher, the Los Angeles Unified School District ultimately told Gabriel they couldn’t do an assessment through videoconference, and it would have to wait until the next school year.
Meanwhile, watching her son struggle has been a painful experience for Gabriel.
“I’m frustrated not knowing how to teach him so he will learn and not hate learning,” she said. “He was discouraged, saying he was stupid and that he was a failure. It was impossible to get him to do homework.”
About 1 in 8 California students receive some type of special education services, according to a 2019 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Those numbers include nearly 800,000 children who need help learning due to speech impairments and learning disorders like dyslexia, as well as more severe conditions such as autism and behavioral challenges.
Low-income and Black students are more likely to receive special education services than their peers, according to state analysts. And as many as half of the roughly 60,000 California foster youth have a disability that can interfere with their ability to learn, said Kristin Power, government relations director with the Alliance for Children’s Rights.
In the early days of the coronavirus, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the state Legislature took quick action to help the state’s education system deal with the pandemic’s sudden spread. Senate Bill 117, signed into law on March 17, allowed schools to receive funding even without students physically attending class, allocated money for personal protective gear for educators and created guidelines for the shift to online learning.
Buried in the much larger bill was a provision easing the legal requirements to serve students with special needs. The emergency legislation freed school districts from having to respond within 15 days to a parent’s request for a special education assessment.
But what was intended to serve as temporary emergency rules in California schools in the first few months after the pandemic now appears to be stretching into another school year. Mixed messaging from local, state and federal education officials has complicated matters.
Some parents like Gabriel have been told by school districts that special education assessment requests will be fulfilled only when students are allowed back on campus. Others aren’t responding to parents’ pleas at all, educational advocates said.
For the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school district in the country, had conducted more than 10,200 online meetings with parents whose students already have special education plans. But district officials have told parents and caregivers that tests used by school psychologists to determine eligibility for special education services should not be done remotely. Assessing students through a virtual platform – one parent was told in May in a letter reviewed by The Imprint – “would significantly impact validity and reliability of any information collected.”
In an email this week, a district official stated that conditions on the ground have not changed since March and confirmed that “due to current County and State health and Safety orders in-person assessments cannot be conducted at this time.” L.A. school officials vowed to work with public health agencies “to determine when it is safe to return to in-person assessments.”
Stanford University law school professor Bill Koski, who directs the Youth and Education Law Clinic, said the inadequate special education plans may leave school districts facing legal jeopardy.
“If it turns out that virtual learning goes as bad as it did during the spring, where kids have IEPs that are simply not even close to being implemented, I think the districts and the state know that there could be serious liability for compensatory education services,” he said.
If nothing changes over the next couple weeks, the pause on special education assessments – provided both to students seeking services for the first time and those with continuing cases being periodically assessed – could land the state in violation of federal law guaranteeing all students to the right to an equal education, experts warn.
During the pandemic, federal and state education agencies have continued to remind local officials they are required to deliver on special ed plans, even given the current challenges.
In an April report to Congress, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos urged locals to try new approaches, stating: “Services typically provided in person may now need to be provided through alternative methods, requiring creative and innovative approaches.”
Federal officials have also suggested that states use “medical records, when appropriate, to establish eligibility without conducting an evaluation,” and that they should also “investigate available assessment instruments and tools to determine if some can be administered or completed remotely during the pandemic.”
Likewise, guidance by the U.S. Department of Education in July urges school districts to maintain timelines for beginning special education services unless there is a government shutdown or a caregiver is hospitalized.
California education officials say they have reiterated this message to local districts. School districts “can and should be working with their respective public health officers to continue assessments,” and state public health guidelines “do not expressly prohibit assessments,” according to an email statement from Jonathan Mendick, an information officer at the California Department of Education.
But advocates say this is not filtering down to the local level, and they want state officials to take a firmer stance, directing school districts to follow federal law and find a way to conduct assessments, even if they can’t be done in person in an ideal way.
Power of the Alliance for Children’s Rights said she is aware the pandemic has made learning difficult for many students and teachers, but there’s been time since the beginning of the pandemic in March to establish emergency measures.
“SB 117 was written at a time when nobody knew very much,” Power said. “What we’re looking at now is a whole different set of circumstances, and we really need some assistance from the [California] Department of Education to make sure we’re meeting the needs of all students.”
The uncertainty around special education services is making life even harder for foster youth during the pandemic. Many are already grappling with the loss of stability and social support that school provided, while others are challenged by remote learning, lacking the hardware or caregivers who can help with online learning.
According to a report from the Los Angeles Unified School District, foster and homeless youth, English language-learners, as well as disabled and low-income students were less likely than their peers to be engaged in online learning from March 16 to May 22. Among middle-schoolers, for example, foster youth and disabled students were more than twice as likely not to have participated in online education at all over 10 weeks of the last school year.
This week, Gabriel went to Benjamin’s Mid-City classroom to pick up materials for first grade: an iPad, a pad of blank paper, a glue stick, a donated two-string backpack and a pair of right-handed scissors, which her left-handed son will not be able to use. She also signed up for the school district’s online learning system and a site that is supposed to help support parents.
Gabriel said she is trying not to panic as another school year beckons. Even though she shared a report obtained from a developmental optometrist in the hopes of speeding up the process, there is still no indication that her March request for an assessment from Los Angeles Unified will be granted.
Without an assessment or a diagnosis for his learning issues through the school, she plans to do things on her own. She hopes to get an assessment for his fine motor skills from his pediatrician, which is covered by Medi-Cal. But other help – like therapy for his inability to recognize letters – would have to come at her own expense in the private sector, though her eye doctor is not seeing patients right now.
As the school year starts, that leaves her with a helpless feeling she can’t escape.
“You feel so lost,” Gabriel said. “I just don’t have the tools to help.”