The almost complete closure of the nation’s schools because of the coronavirus pandemic has stranded millions of special education students in a rapidly shifting learning landscape.
Among them: high school sophomore Josh Uchniat, who is on the autism spectrum. Even though his mom said he was “happy as a clam” with the unexpected shutdown of his suburban Detroit school, his parents are struggling to help him continue his learning at home.
“In Josh’s case, when routine is gone, it’s a free-for-all,” Teresa Uchniat said. “Working from home, I don’t have time to sit with him.” She works as an analyst for a major internet service provider while Josh’s dad, Rob, works at a local big box hardware store, which remains open as an essential service.
Josh’s teachers have sent home some work but without the underlying structure of school and the support he usually receives. Meanwhile, Teresa struggles to motivate him to do more than lounge in his pajama pants and play video games.
Nationwide, services for students with special needs have temporarily ground to a halt as schools scramble to adjust to sudden closures. Those supports include Braille materials and technological aids for visually impaired students, physical and occupational therapy sessions, and one-on-one classroom aides for students who need them. The vast majority of those services require a significant human component—a skilled staff member—something schools cannot provide under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter-in-place or social distancing orders that come with it.
In a nine-page Q&A published on March 12, the U.S. Department of Education advised public school districts that if a school “continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities.”
A federal law enacted in the mid-1970s says that children with disabilities have a right to free public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has helped improve access to and the quality of special education. Schools that don’t comply with IDEA risk losing federal funding and can even run afoul of federal civil rights laws.
The COVID-19 guidance led many scrambling school districts to pause their plans for distance learning. The 200,000-student School District of Philadelphia announced last Wednesday it would forego any distance instruction at all during its state-mandated closure.
“If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.
Numerous other school districts made similar decisions, also citing concerns about equity.
But in response to complaints that their previous direction left schools in an untenable position, the Education Department over the weekend released updated guidance, clarifying that “ensuring compliance with IDEA … should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” The memo stressed the department does not want to stand in the way of good-faith efforts to educate students online.
On Monday, the Philadelphia district reversed its decision and announced it would develop remote learning options for its students. But the latest Education Department memo does little to supply what students like Josh need.
“One thing that’s really missing is his core class, where they go through social situations with each other,” Teresa Uchniat said. “How would you handle this? How would you handle that? He’s really missing that part of it.”