Opinion: COVID-19 education for special needs children falls short

Rick Baker and Kathy Carter

Few debates are as lively or contentious as the one surrounding the ways in which Michigan children are returning to school this fall. But with all the talk about online instruction, masks, extracurricular programming, and learning loss, another — much bigger — issue must be addressed.

Support for children with special learning needs remains a major legal, moral and practical hazard for Michigan schools. Special education services were among the most difficult for educators to deliver last spring, and it’s a significant concern as children come back to school this fall.

Today, around 13% of Michigan children have disabilities that require additional learning supports from their schools. Of these children, more than half (8.3%) also are economically disadvantaged, which means they are likely unable to pay privately for any special education services their school districts can’t deliver during a remote learning period.

Special education services were among the most difficult for educators to deliver last spring, Baker and Carter write.

And these services are many, particularly among those with severe disabilities. Today, Michigan provides special education services to children from birth to age 26. These services are rendered on a completely personalized basis, often in one-to-one settings, in accordance with each learner’s unique needs.

Now, imagine a student with special needs — one that’s accustomed to individualized, hands-on learning — being put in front of a computer, without an educator by her or his side. Imagine that student trying to figure out how to proceed, stay on task, and grow without the much-needed face-to-face supports with which she or he is familiar.

That’s the best case scenario. Now imagine that same student living in poverty or in a rural area without the internet. They don’t have access to the digital resources they need to engage, and a paper packet isn’t good enough. That student is essentially going without instruction, and in some cases, has been for months.

These inequities hardly reflect the “free, appropriate public education” to which all children with disabilities are entitled under federal law, and to which, morally, we should want to provide them. Not only does continuing distance learning pose an extra ongoing challenge for this population of learners, but it also exposes school districts to potential civil rights actions on behalf of their families, and penalties from U.S. education officials. These outcomes are not positive for anyone involved.

We believe the following recommendations make sense as policymakers and practitioners work toward common-sense solutions for the delivery of special education services:

► Ensure children with disabilities are given top priority when it comes to accessing face-to-face learning opportunities. These individuals should be first to access buildings and classrooms when it is deemed safe to do so.

► Prioritize funding for special education. In the “equity versus equality” fight, equity should always win. Some children need extra support for their learning, and our state’s funding system must ensure they can get it.

► Ensure special education teachers can get the professional development they need to deliver distance instruction effectively. If it is unsafe to learn face to face, we must make sure our educators are supported to provide educational opportunities at a distance.

► Listen to parents. They know best what their children are experiencing and are prepared to work with schools to help ensure the best learning outcomes can occur.

Our partners with us in Launch Michigan have done a good deal of survey and focus group work over the summer to help add validity to these recommendations. Time and again, they heard that Michigan children with disabilities lacked the direct support they needed to keep learning and growing during the spring. Parents are clamoring for more engagement and support.

We know our state’s educators are overwhelmed. But it’s true there is one very important group of children whose needs are greatest among everyone, and we believe it’s time to put children with disabilities first.

Rick Baker is president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber. Kathy Carter is president of the Michigan Parent Teachers Association. Both are members of Launch Michigan. 

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