Within Seattle Public Schools, only one student with disabilities is currently receiving services in person. Next week, that number will increase to two.
District officials say there are a few reasons why it’s taking a long time to get in-person services delivered to students while the school year proceeds online for most kids. A major reason for the delay: The district chose to set up services at students’ home schools — as opposed to at districtwide hubs — which meant making sure 104 school sites were safe for adult work, said Concie Pedroza, chief of student supports.
Students with disabilities made up about 15.8% of Seattle’s enrollment, according to the state’s school report card.
Other districts are using different models to get students what they need in person. In Bellevue, which this September enrolled fewer than half of Seattle’s 52,481 students, 150 students were receiving services in person as of Thursday, according to spokesperson Michael May. There, the district is concentrating services at four school sites — not all of which are students’ home schools.
In Lake Washington, 475 students with disabilities were getting assistance in person as of Thursday, said spokesperson Shannon Parthemer. Educators recommended in-person services for 580 students; 105 families declined them. Lake Washington provides these services across 34 school sites.
Focusing on home schools was “the most important thing,” Pedroza, the Seattle schools official, said in a briefing with journalists Thursday.
Late last week, Seattle announced that remote learning would continue at least through January — making any moves at improving its online-era work all the more long-lasting. Sixty-five students are “already in queue” to receive these services, Pedroza said; eight students have successfully gone through the health and safety review the district requires of staff and families before it firms up its decisions.
Many parents of students with disabilities have said that remote learning has been particularly tough on their kids. Students with ADHD, for example, have a harder time focusing on screens for longer, especially without the support they’d get in school. Under federal law, students with disabilities have a specific right to a “free appropriate public education.”
To determine what that is, school staff and families set individualized goals and mandate the type of services students need to get there, such as speech or occupational therapy. Already, Washington families have turned to courts, claiming that those needs have not been met amid the coronavirus pandemic.
One critic of that policy said she did not understand why the district thought it mattered to focus on offering services at a student’s home school.
“I really worry about what’s going on with kids at home — I just cannot imagine that’s the least restrictive environment for them,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “What matters is the student receiving appropriate services and hopefully from the teacher that they know. That can happen anywhere.”
Similarly, Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, an organization that supports the parents of children with disabilities, said she felt “incredible dismay that we are eight weeks into the school year, and there are many students with disabilities who we’ve known since the spring could not engage in online learning and would need in-person services in order to make progress.”
Seattle’s school-reopening plan, approved in August, prioritized getting some students with disabilities back into school buildings even as the rest of students continued to learn online. The August version of the plan stated that special-education services offered in person would occur in two buildings in each of the city’s regions.
According to the district’s website, members of students’ individualized learning teams were set to meet remotely to determine whether in-person services were necessary. Once the team determines a student needs in-person help, students will receive transportation to get them to their home school sites “in compliance with health guidelines.”
Before a student can begin receiving in-person services, the district has staff and families trained on the appropriate personal protective equipment, or PPE; families also learn how to enter schools safely. The process involves bus monitors, student health alerts and contact tracing, protocols for putting students in isolation rooms when necessary, procedures to check on air quality in buildings, and cleaning and disinfecting schools.
Pedroza said relying on home schools enabled students to work with their existing individualized education teams, the people who would determine who needed extra in-person help.
Setting up schools for adequate staffing, Pedroza said, took a while because “when a decision is made for in-person services,” it also affects their ability to do remote work.
When asked why it took so long to get any students their in-person services, Superintendent Denise Juneau said changing standards from the Washington Department of Labor & Industries held up the process. “We then have to shift over and learn about new kinds of masks that we need to acquire and the type of training that it takes for fitting those masks, looking at our buildings and where, you know, how that can work out for providing in-person services,” she said.
The district is also working down a backlog of parents’ requests for special-education evaluations. As of August, about 800 were outstanding, but by October, that number was down to about 285.
Juneau also discussed the district’s enrollment dip and student engagement. Most districts saw a small enrollment drop this year — SPS officials expect it to cost $22 million.
So far, in October, participation on the district’s online platforms was 95.4%, said Wyeth Jessee, chief of schools and continuous improvement.
Juneau also took the briefing as an opportunity to address criticism she recently received as the regional and local chapters of the NAACP called for the district to terminate her contract, claiming she had “exacerbated racism” in SPS.
Juneau said she regularly met with the local NAACP, so she was surprised by the criticism. “Seattle Public Schools deserves some longevity in leadership … because we’ll eventually go back” to in-person learning, she said. Juneau said she wanted to continue to carry out the district’s strategic plan, which focuses specifically on better serving Black male students. She called the NAACP “a very important partner” and “vital member of our community. … What they have to say is super important.”
Juneau said that as someone who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation, she herself has experienced “individual, institutional and systemic racism” firsthand. “I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial taunts, of being the only person of color in so many rooms, being the subject of someone else’s low expectations,” she said.
“When I hear voices like the NAACP’s … it always makes it clear that we have so much work to do.” Juneau also addressed the NAACP’s concern that the district lost Black men in leadership positions since she took over SPS. She said that many of them moved onto “bigger and better roles,” while some were dismissed for performance issues.