Caroline’s son, a 17-year-old who has autism, finds peace in routine.
Before the pandemic, the teen spent most of the day at his Lake Washington high school, then came home to shower, listen to music and eat dinner. But when schools closed, his behavior became increasingly erratic and violent.
He dumped cans of soup or bags of flour on the kitchen floor. He began biting and hitting family members. Caroline was forced to quit her job at McDonald’s so she could care for him full-time.
For many special education families, online learning is simply not working, and some parents say their children are regressing. The state has received at least 45 special education-related complaints since schools closed last March. And three special education families have filed a lawsuit asking Thurston County Superior Court to overturn statewide emergency rules that relaxed the number of instructional hours schools provide students.
Amid school closures, regular sessions with state-funded behavioral technicians are one of the only supports Caroline’s son has. His district recently granted him a couple of hours each day of in-person learning — but it’s not enough, said Caroline, who is pleading with the district for more face-to-face time.
“If you are not going to speak up, nobody will help you,” Caroline said. (The Seattle Times is not naming the boy and withholding the family’s last name at their request to protect their privacy.) “It’s not only for my son, there are other children who have special needs and they need support.”
Like districts across the state, Lake Washington was unprepared to switch to remote learning in the spring for normally developing students, much less those with learning disabilities.
Special education staff largely stopped evaluating children who might newly qualify for specialized services, creating a backlog of at least 1,308 students statewide, state officials say. Many districts struggled in the spring to keep data on how well students like Caroline’s son were progressing. And an unknown number of children with disabilities disappeared from Zoom calls — or never showed up at all.
Caroline’s son can’t focus on online lessons, and in moments of frustration, broke a family laptop and tablet. At school, he was used to spending face-time with paraeducators. But with buildings closed, that was no longer an option. Even in pre-pandemic times, these children and their families were forced to fight their way through a bureaucratic special education system. Now they were invisible to it altogether.
As most of the state’s children continue learning at a distance this school year, state education officials here have repeatedly implored districts to prioritize in-person schooling for children with disabilities, who along with young children, are least likely to adapt to learning online.
But it’s ultimately up to the districts. Although they must comply with federal special education law, including new guidance that prevents district-wide policies that limit special education services, neither federal nor state law requires districts to offer in-person learning to those with disabilities. The result: a patchwork of policies that give some children, like Caroline’s son, limited time with teachers, while leaving out many others. Several local districts, including Seattle Public Schools, say such decisions are based on whether students have made progress during remote learning. Some students who don’t qualify have not had meaningful interactions with school staff in months.
Accounts from dozens of Washington families — some who have taken to Facebook and other social sites to voice frustrations and seek advice — suggest that many children with disabilities are going without services. The state has ordered districts to address at least 16 special education complaints since buildings closed — requiring them to provide compensatory services, among other things, said Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent for special education services at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI is also providing online professional development and other support for educators and families, she said.
Families also say their children’s teachers and therapists are incredibly supportive, but are hamstrung by new pandemic-era practices that attempt to balance safety with learning. For their part, special education teachers say services are beginning to improve, but that this school year got off to a rocky start.
“What troubles me is that no one seems to be willing to name the issue,” said Ilene Schwartz, director of the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington. There is an “invisible assumption” that an adult will be available to mediate learning for children who receive special education, she said. But this isn’t possible for many families — either because parents aren’t available or aren’t equipped to help their children with specialized instruction.
“Most of those students are not going to be able to access education from a screen without very significant planning,” Schwartz said. “We need to be upfront about that.”
It’s 9 a.m. on a Monday in September and Caroline is rummaging around for a balloon. Her son, who has limited spoken language abilities, loves to inflate them. His behavioral technician has just arrived at the family home in Kirkland. The technician can’t help him with schooling — the state agency that funds them doesn’t allow it, though the company the techs work for contracts with other districts for educational services. So today they’ll work on basic behaviors, such as staying calm.
When school closed and the teenager lost school services he was used to, Caroline — who was a teacher in the Philippines before she immigrated here in 2016 — attempted to create new routines. Her son loves riding the bus, visiting Uwajimaya supermarket and eating out at Dairy Queen or Great State Burger. But these activities were suddenly more complicated: He didn’t like wearing a mask.
Everything felt difficult.
A few weeks after the new school year began, he qualified for 2.5 hours of in-person instruction. He now hops on the bus around 7:30 a.m. four days a week, and comes home by 10:30 a.m. Caroline says she’s asked for additional hours, or for her son to transfer to a specialized school for autistic children.
The teenager’s mental health clinician, Dana Anderson, sits in school meetings with families to help counsel them as they seek special education services. In pandemic times, available services vary widely by district, she said. They also differ by child.
“I’ve been in a few individualized education plan meetings where I get conflicting information, depending on which client I’m talking about, regarding the services [the district] can provide,” Anderson said, adding that the process of negotiating services is confusing because of the unprecedented nature of schooling during the pandemic. As for many of her clients, she said, “No one is really thinking it is enough. It is obviously not enough. What can be frustrating is sometimes the district is like ‘No, just try virtual [learning].’”
Rachel Nemhauser, who spends her days fielding phone calls from special education families, picked up approximately 50 calls in September, a roughly 25% increase from the same month last year.
“It’s call after call from families from every district. East King County to South King County, everything in between, saying we’re not getting school. Virtual learning is not working,” said Nemhauser, a community and family support program manager at The Arc of King County.
Nemhauser knows this first-hand: Her 16-year-old son Nate cannot read or write and virtual learning was “out of the question” this spring, when he spent most days on YouTube or playing Xbox games, she said. This school year, he attends class in-person two days a week at a public school in Bellevue, which makes a big difference, Nemhauser said. He’s one of about 145 special education students district-wide who are served in person. About 1,600 are served remotely, though officials say the district soon hopes to move to a hybrid model.
For days when Nate is home, Nemhauser hired a private behavioral therapy team, at a cost of about $700-800 monthly after insurance. Like Caroline’s son, Nate’s behavioral technicians can’t teach him directly; they are limited by insurance regulations, Nemhauser said. Bellevue officials — and officials from Seattle Public Schools — said privacy laws prevent them from speaking about specific students.
What hurts, she said, is that messages she hears from state leaders don’t seem to match up with reality.
“It is systemic,” she said. “A big part of the problem is the state’s unwillingness to have strong language around this and putting it back on the responsibility of the parents.”
Off the radar
Remote learning is “super hard” for 10-year-old Oliver Parker, who until recently could only handle about 15 minutes of online learning a day.
“I don’t like seeing 26 faces at once,” said Oliver, who is autistic. He has trouble in social situations and with sensory processing. Classmates, he said, “are always interrupting each other. It’s hard to listen to.”
About two weeks ago, a district tutor began helping him for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, which has helped.
A private neurodevelopmental pediatrician, a clinical psychologist and a speech and language pathologist have assessed him. But Oliver, a fourth grader at Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle, needed a separate evaluation by special education staff to decide if he qualifies for services. When the coronavirus arrived in Washington, this evaluation was put on hold indefinitely. “We were basically told that without [in-person] observation they can’t evaluate,” said his mother, Jana Parker.
Michelle Farrell, a Seattle special education teacher who works with blind and visually impaired children, said she understands and appreciates parents’ frustrations. Farrell has two children who went through the special education system in Washington. “But from the educators’ side, when we do an evaluation it needs to be completely comprehensive,” she said. “So yes, a big piece of that is reports from outside providers … but we need to assess not on a medical basis, but on an education basis.”
But few suspected — or planned — for the possibility that evaluations would be delayed past last school year, she said. “It’s now become evident to everyone that this isn’t going away anytime soon and we need to find ways to make it work.”
Officials in Seattle and elsewhere say such evaluations are now beginning in-person, or through a combination of in-person and remote observations. Seattle schools plan to complete more than 1,000 evaluations by Dec. 1, district spokesperson Tim Robinson wrote in an email; Parker recently heard that Oliver’s evaluation will be scheduled soon. Lake Washington had an evaluation backlog of 29 students; Bellevue officials said they had none. OSPI flags districts that don’t meet evaluations deadlines — which could result in reduced funds for those students, Gallo said.
Such delays are an extension of deep-rooted problems in special education, said Janis White, Seattle Special Education PTSA president. “But they are magnified by COVID and remote learning.”
Caroline recently tried to introduce her son to an iPad, though he’s still having trouble concentrating. She’s also gone back again to her son’s special education team to request more face-to-face learning. After The Seattle Times inquired about his case, the district on Friday added 2.5 hours to his daily instruction. Caroline said the extra time was offered on a trial basis.
“I’m telling them that I am already frustrated, and they said to me that their hearts are broken,” she said. “I don’t want their empathy. I want actions for the education of my son.”