Schooled Reporting on education

Special education free-for-all

Education | Families of special-needs students miss school support during the COVID-19 outbreak
by Laura Edghill
Posted 3/25/20, 02:45 pm

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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) A sign at a standardized testing site in Bethesda, Md.

Testing’s out

The federal government suspended standardized testing for the 2019-2020 school year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced Friday. The Department of Education will grant a waiver to any state unable to assess students because of closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time,” DeVos said.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, orders states to test students in math and reading/language arts once a year in grades three through eight and once in high school. The law also requires states to test students in science once during elementary school, middle school, and high school and to administer annual language proficiency assessments for all students still learning to speak English.

Joy Samsel, a ninth grade algebra teacher at Rhea County High School in Dayton, Tenn., welcomed the news.

“Even in a typical school year, many teachers feel the strain of trying to cover all of the content for their subject area,” she said. “Without the pressure of looming testing, teachers can focus on caring for students and teaching them what they should know [whether or not schools reopen],” she said.

Bill Zimmerman, academic dean of the Covenant School in Charlottesville, Va., agreed with the Education Department’s decision but noted a downside: School systems that don’t test will lose a year of data about students’ progress. Thankfully, he said, his school already completed its testing in the fall. —Bob Brown

Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak (file) Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak (file) An Advanced Placement physics class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington

AP goes digital

The College Board announced it will give Advanced Placement exams online this spring. Each subject-specific test will last 45 minutes and have a free-response format. High school students taking AP exams can choose from two dates for each subject. The College Board will publish the full schedule by April 3.

Because students have lost class time to school closures, exams will include only the “topics and skills most AP teachers and students have already covered in class by early March,” the College Board said. It also has several security tools in place to detect plagiarism and other forms of cheating.

Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement and instruction at the College Board, tweeted that the exams will not include any multiple-choice questions and “will measure skills that can’t be learned from Google or chats with friends.” —B.B.


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Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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