The Washington state education department is ordering Seattle Public Schools to make up for excessive delays to in-person instruction and medical care for some disabled students during the pandemic.
Under one of two orders issued earlier this month, the school district must provide a year of after-school tutoring for students who were promised in-person instruction because of their disability but faced significant delays getting it — in one case, up to 21 weeks. The state is currently reviewing the cases of 329 kids to determine who may qualify.
Another order requires the district to meet individually with families of 11 medically fragile students the district declined to compensate for nursing care, and discuss whether reimbursement is necessary.
A state investigation found the school district issued a blanket policy of not paying for nursing care rather than discussing what was necessary for each student. That’s a violation of federal law, which requires school districts to assess the needs of each student individually.
State officials are required to be present at these meetings with families, a rare level of intervention.
“Based on the ongoing findings of noncompliance that have been identified … this additional step has been added to ensure correction,” Glenna Gallo, who oversees special education at the state education department, wrote in an emailed response.
Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools, said the district will “prioritize appropriate responsiveness to OSPI [Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction] requirements and any and all mandated corrective actions.” He did not directly respond to questions about the state’s findings.
The enforcement actions are a narrowly targeted response amid more than a year of wide-scale complaints about delayed or insufficient services for Seattle’s disabled students, who are entitled to accommodations for their disabilities while they learn in school.
This spring, the school district rescheduled an earlier school reopening date for special education students three times. In January, the U.S. Department of Education launched a probe into concerns that the district told teachers not to provide instruction tailored to student needs at the outset of the pandemic. Gallo said she doesn’t believe the investigation has finished yet, and a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education did not immediately respond to an inquiry. And last October, the school district was found only to be serving one student with a disability in person while neighboring districts served hundreds.
The orders issued this month stem from a series of complaints filed to the state this year about delayed or denied services. Those complaints prompted officials to investigate a wider number of cases, said Mary Griffin, an attorney representing families on the complaints.
The state is still sifting through student case files to determine which students would qualify for the tutoring program. The state is only reviewing 329 cases where the district promised in-person services prior to the district’s wider reopening, between last September and April 2, 2021. Families will be notified by August if they qualify for the tutoring program.
“I think it is important to understand that we did not find that SPS was violating [federal special education law] for all students investigated, as some delays in in-person services were reasonable to meet health and safety requirements,” wrote Gallo.
But for at least several students, state documents show, the process to get students cleared to learn in person was stalled because the district’s health services staff may have been consumed by transitioning to preparing for an all-student return in 2020. That “raises a concern” that the delays could have been due to staffing rather than student-specific issues, state officials wrote.
Beyond the scope of the state’s orders, parents still reserve the right under federal law to ask the district for makeup services that are more individual to their child’s disability. The enforcement actions put the district “on alert that [he state] is going to be monitoring them for compliance,” said Griffin.