In some ways, school closures have afforded 11-year-old Tristan some reprieve from his daily grind at Salmon Bay K-8 in Seattle.

He’s been able to focus his energy on building a small wave tank, a science fair project he’s excited about, said his mom, Cheryl Jenrow. Zoom meetings with teachers are going relatively well, he said, especially in math. 

But a critical part of his education is missing.

Since schools closed, he hasn’t gotten any speech therapy or one-on-one help for his learning disability and autism — services guaranteed through his individualized learning plan (IEP), a legally binding educational roadmap for students with disabilities. Juggling priorities and home assignments have been a particular challenge for him.

The state’s sudden pandemic-driven experiment in remote learning has illuminated several of the K-12 public education system’s shortcomings, and education for students with disabilities is one of them. Many parents, including Jenrow, say they’ve fought hard to get the services their kids need in order to learn. While they recognize the unique challenge of delivering these services during the closures, families, attorneys and educators worry that the coming months will set kids back even further.

Washington state has garnered a reputation for its poor track record with special education. The state’s 165,000 students with disabilities, whose rights to a “free and appropriate” public education are enshrined in federal law, posted some of the lowest outcomes in the country in recent years. Some early efforts by school districts to continue offering instruction during the shutdown fell short of fully including students with disabilities. 

The state education department, or Office of Superintendent of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), has already received five formal complaints about special education services during the closures.

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During the first week that many districts kicked off their distance education plans, many families said they waited for learning accommodations that never arrived, making it difficult or impossible for their kids to complete assignments. 

“I’m afraid the consequence will be that students with disabilities will have to rely completely on their own families for education and support for their own schooling,” said Kathy George, a Seattle-area education attorney who helps Jenrow negotiate services for Tristan“That fundamentally goes against the concept of a free and appropriate public education.”

Jenrow said she’s been filling in where she can, spending hours each day trying to walk Tristan through assignments and convincing him to stay on track, but she’s no expert.

“It’s just going to make the cracks even bigger,” said Jenrow, who requested The Seattle Times withhold her son’s last name to protect his privacy.

In a conversation they had about school on Tuesday, Tristan told Jenrow he felt “terrible” about attending middle school next year. “Sixth grade might be a super high jump from fifth grade because I haven’t really been doing too much,” he said.

Districts are required to provide special education services and communicate with families during the shutdown, and the state will continue to monitor for compliance with the law, said Glenna Gallo, OSPI’s special education director. But with an almost complete ban on teachers interacting with students in-person, it’s clear that school systems won’t be able to provide service in the same way they used to, she added.

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Gallo said she expects the situation will improve with time.

“Some [districts] are farther along in their communications plans than others,” she said. “I would encourage families to reach out” to their districts if they don’t hear anything.

OSPI will still investigate complaints about districts not making an effort to deliver services. But some accountability checks have changed or loosened in response to the closures. For the time being, the agency has suspended its Consolidated Review Program, which involves visiting each school district once every five years to review their compliance with federal law, including special education. And while the OSPI encourages districts to continue holding their scheduled meetings with parents to discuss IEPs, it won’t penalize districts for missing their deadlines.

The delays aren’t unique to special education. General instruction has also proven challenging for districts to roll out since the closures. Some services are inherently designed for classrooms, like building good social skills or sticking to a daily routine. Many districts, including Seattle, still haven’t been able to administer laptops and provide internet access to every student. Thousands of students also lack a stable and quiet home to focus on schoolwork. 

There are some scenarios in which Gov. Jay Inslee’s order permits some services to be provided on school grounds. If school buildings are the safest place to offer behavioral health services, for example, students can still go there to get therapy. But that should happen on a rare and case-by-case basis, OSPI said Wednesday.

Even if services can’t remain exactly the same, many parents say they just want some basic resources or a small check-in. Jenrow was looking for the tool her son uses in class to organize his thoughts while he writes. Jeniffer Trice, another Seattle parent, said she needed the adaptive paper her son uses to make sure he stays within the lines when he writes.

The remote work is slowly revving up in some places. On Wednesday, the state rolled out more detailed guidance to school districts about special education. Teachers are giving families copies of their lesson plans, pointing to online resources and scheduling one-to-one video conferences with students. 

Jaymie Torres, a teacher in the Highline School District, still meets weekly with an occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist to plan lessons. She’s planning to record herself reading some stories aloud, narrating her understanding of the story to kids.

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But there are hurdles.

Her classroom, which supports kids with emotional and behavioral needs, relies on a predictable schedule and reward system. It relieves stress and keeps kids on task, she said. That’s hard to replicate, especially when parents are working. “There’s been so much progress and gain over the past year. My biggest concern is some of the skills they’re going to lose,” said Torres.

Seattle Public Schools teachers say their instructional hurdles stem from trouble getting both students and educators access to computers.

Kayla Korves-Bishop, a special education teacher at Southshore K-8, has been in contact with her students since the district announced its closure. She’s started to modify some assignments for individual students and post them online, but that doesn’t come close to the amount of support they normally receive with schoolwork.

Though video chat is a recommended substitute for in-person instruction, Korves-Bishop has only been able to do that with less than half of her 24 students. The district hasn’t yet rolled out laptops for all the kids.

It’s frustrating, she said. “I can’t make sure they understand the material,” said Korves-Bishop. “I wanna see my kids.”

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Another complicating factor: the instructional aide, or paraeducator, she works with doesn’t have a laptop. The district only provides them to certificated teachers. That’s a problem because paraeducators are typically the school employees who have the most daily interaction with students in special education. Reached for comment on Wednesday, SPS spokesman Tim Robinson said the district plans to purchase 1,500 laptops for paraeducators.

In the interim, Korves-Bishop has been texting and calling parents and students. Kids assure her they’re doing the work. Parents request the classroom schedule, and tip her off to when a student is struggling.

Other factors could further complicate the situation. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering waiving some parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law that grants the right to education for kids with disabilities.

Education Lab engagement editor Anne Hillman contributed audio editing for this story. 

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