(InvestigateTV) - Educating first-grader Bennett Pellegrino requires four hands.
Born with cerebral palsy and legally blind, Bennett’s special education services include physical, occupational and speech therapy, all now done by his parents, who also work full time.
“There are days that I just sit in my car and cry because I am just not enough for him. My husband is not enough for him. Even together we cannot do everything that he needs,” said his mother Mary Pellegrino.
Pellegrino is also a special education teacher near Philadelphia. She said the district is supportive but isn’t meeting her son’s needs.
“The lack of guidance that they have, from the federal and state level, I think is what’s really impeding districts’ ability to ensure that they can do what they need to do for their students,” she said.
Remote learning for special education students during the coronavirus pandemic has been largely left up to the school districts and the states. The U.S. Department of Education, which typically enforces standards through federal law, continues to provide only general guidance for public schools serving students who fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA.
Now, the special education services that students receive depend on where they live, according to a survey by InvestigateTV.
When school closed in March, Massachusetts mother of five Carrie Trenholm said she became solely responsible for teaching her 6-year-old non-verbal son.
“The school did not give any prep, and how could they really?” Trenholm said. “They are giving support where they can, answering questions and trying their best, but my son is a kid that needs to be hands-on for learning.”
A national, ongoing survey this spring of 160 parents found less than half — 39% — had been contacted by their school to check on their student with a disability since remote learning began. But the survey conducted by the Learning Disabilities Association of America found that 63% of parents felt “generally supported” by their schools.
The survey was prompted by a desire to determine what parents’ greatest needs are to help children with remote learning. The group based in Pittsburgh advocates for students with learning disabilities.
The organization’s president Monica McHale-Small acknowledged that people who are feeling frustrated are more likely to fill out surveys, and so, the results could be somewhat skewed, but she said the overall message was clear.
"I get that this is a very difficult situation, but I also know that when you communicate with people, and you collaborate, and you work together, most of the time, that works out. And that's what parents are asking for: They just want someone to reach out,” McHale-Small said.
That’s what Linn Murguia, the program leader for special education at Timberline High School in Lacey, Washington, has tried to do.
She was able to connect with just 20% of the families of her students during the first two weeks of remote instruction.
“I make a lot of phone calls, and I send a lot of emails, and it’s something that in every meeting I’m in we talk about.”
In the district’s fourth week of online learning, Murguia estimated 60% of her students were involved, but acknowledged that the transition has been a challenge.
She said access to the internet and housing troubles may be two of the biggest factors for why some students are not signing on to remote learning.
At least 1.5 million students in the United States were classified as homeless during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a report from the National Center for Homeless Education.
Connectivity continues to also be a common issue for many remote students. Nearly 80% of homes in the nation had broadband internet in 2019, but that dropped to 63% when just looking at rural internet users, according to the Pew Research Center.
Federal Education Guidance
In early March, right before schools across the country began to close their doors to slow the spread of COVID-19, the U.S. education department began releasing resources and guidance for schools on a variety of subjects. By law, public school systems are required to provide every child with a disability a free and appropriate public education.
How to provide adequate disability services was left to school districts and state educational agencies to decide. The initial guidance caused confusion. Some interpreted the department’s direction to mean that if a school was unable to provide complete equity to all students then they should not provide any education at all.
Philadelphia initially forbade graded “remote instruction,” and school districts were not required to offer educational services during the shutdown, according to an internal letter sent to schools. The district later started grading work in May.
Later in March, the U.S. Department of Education released another supplemental fact sheet addressing this “misunderstanding.”
“We remind schools that they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expanse (sic) of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities,” the document says. “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act...should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
Federal law requires districts to meet the needs of all students
Under IDEA, every student who qualifies gets an individualized education plan, or IEP.
The IEPs outline the specific accommodations students with disabilities need in order to learn, such as, extra testing time, a full-time aide and speech therapy.
Students must have one of 13 disabilities to qualify under IDEA. The most common fall under the category of a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia or a non-verbal learning disability.
InvestigateTV contacted 25 states serving the largest percentage of IDEA students and nearly 200 school districts in those states, to find out what guidance states were providing districts.
State guidance on how to best serve IDEA students varied, with some acknowledging that schools may not be able to provide typical services.
Alaska is emphasizing individualization, telling districts that a “blanket” plan is not acceptable, according to a department of education spokesperson. New Jersey plans to “continue special education services to the best extent.” Indiana’s department created an extensive document to answer questions about all special education services.
Similarly, states had different answers to the question of how they would be enforcing that IDEA students’ needs were met during distance learning.
In Oklahoma, the department’s communications director said regional accreditation officers are checking in with school districts to make sure they’re meeting expectations. Failure to follow required adapted learning plans in Wyoming may result in blocked grant funding, or additional school days to catch up, according to the department’s spokesperson. A spokesperson for Oregon’s Department of Education said their primary focus is providing support for IDEA students, not enforcement.
Looking toward the future
The full force of COVID-19’s impact on education likely won’t be clear until next school year.
"This is an unprecedented situation,” said McHale-Small, the advocacy group’s president. “We've never experienced something like this.”
Some states are already preparing for the consequences.
In New Jersey, parents of students with disabilities may be able to make a case for academic compensation and make-up contact hours whenever things return to normal. New Jersey Department of Education spokesperson Mike Yaple said evaluations will be made to see how well school districts attempted to meet IEPs.
“Let’s say a student is eligible in his or her IEP to receive two sessions a week of speech therapy. For whatever reason, the school district doesn’t provide a dozen of those sessions. The IEP team could restructure the plan to compensate for the lost services,” Yaple said. “Some parents may want four sessions a week for the next several weeks. Some parents might feel that might be too much for their child to do each week, and they may agree to three sessions a week. It should be agreed upon by the educators and the family, through the IEP.
Parents who disagree with the special education services that were provided may pursue “dispute resolution” by asking for mediation or filling for a due process hearing.
Peg Kinsell is an institutional policy director at SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, an organization of parents of children with special needs in Newark, New Jersey. She recommends parents keep an accurate record of their child’s skills in order to detect regression.
“Our advice to parents, make sure you document really well. The amount of services you are getting, the time, what they consist of, are they even close to the objectives of your IEP,” she said.
First-grader Bennett’s IEP states he should be getting physical therapy for 90 minutes each week. He currently gets 30 minutes, according to his mother. Mrs. Pellegrino said Bennett’s school has been supportive about how to compensate for his lost services.
“They have been very open with us that we are going to have conversations about what that make-up time is going to look like when school starts,” she said.
Bennett will finish this school year in June when he receives his final grade.
“I will be just as proud of that grade as my husband will be because we have worked just as hard as he has, if not a little harder, for him to get the grade that he is getting,” she said.
Megan Luther contributed to this report.
Additional reporting by: Peter Buffo, John Canicosa, Cody Downey, Laura Jayne, and Anum Siddiqui from Loyola University New Orleans.
InvestigateTV News Content Specialists Tess Rowland and Emma Ruby contributed to this report.