Return to classroom bringing challenges

Return to classroom bringing challenges

COVID-19 protocols are not the only thing being watched carefully by families with children with disabilities and school personnel. More than 50 people were on an August 19 call to discuss assistance for special education students returning to schools. State health and education officials and Minnesota Disability Law Center representatives explained what to expect.

The overriding message? Everyone wants students to be back in school. But that has to be done in a way that is safe and meets federal and state guidelines. Doing that in the face of the Delta variant, which is easily transmitted, is a huge worry.

The return also must be done in a way that helps special education students who may have lost skills or regressed as a result of the pandemic. While some students thrived with distance learning, others struggled.

A big worry for many families is how to make up for lost educational opportunities, through the recovery education plans being put into place.

Maren Hulden, an attorney with Minnesota Disability Law Center and a leader in the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, reviewed legislation passed during the recent special session as part of the education omnibus bill. It was a response to families whose children with disabilities really faced challenges during the pandemic.

Distance learning for most students began in spring 2020 and continued through the 2020-2021 academic year. While learning at home made things easier for some students, other students struggled without their needed supports and services. A huge concern was for how students would make up for what was lost.

The intent became to have school districts reach out to families of students who have disabilities, school leaders and others with a stake in the issue. The key takeaway is that school districts must reach out to families of students who have an individualized education plan (IEP) to invite them to an IEP meeting.

The meeting should be no later than December 1. The purpose of the meeting is to determine whether special education services and supports are needed to address the student’s lack of progress on IEP goals or in the general education curriculum or loss of learning and skills — or skills due to disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a meeting the IEP team decides if more services and supports would be necessary for the child to address disruptions. The team then gets to decide what those services are and when — so the what, when and how of how those services should be provided, said Hulden. She explained that students could benefit from various services and supports, including changes to an IEP plan. There also could be as focus on mental health needs that have emerged during the pandemic.

An array of potential means of assistance could be considered as the IEP teams weighs many issues. The loss of skills and regression have been key concerns for many families. Hulden noted that each family’s situation is unique, calling for thoughtful approaches to help.

A lot of detail in how the work unfolds is in the hands of initial school districts. That leads to questions about the resources available in smaller school districts, and how those resources can be found. Hulden gave the example of a student needing speech therapy. A small school may have to bring in a speech therapist if one is not on staff. Or a unique tutoring program may have to be set up, to help a child progress through the education curriculum.

The Minnesota Department of Education has many links to special education programs and services, including links to the pandemic-related efforts. Go to https://education.mn.gov/mde/dse/sped/