ST. PAUL — Nancy Bitenc’s 7-year-old son spends most of a typical school day in an autism room at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary in St. Paul.
Diagnosed with severe autism, cognitive disabilities and ADHD, his individualized education plan calls for speech therapy, adaptive physical education and occupational therapy, his mother said.
Even before his school was shuttered because of a teachers strike — and then kept closed in an effort to contain the coronavirus — he wasn’t getting all the services to which he was entitled, she said.
Now, as St. Paul and the rest of the state embark on at least five weeks of distance learning, his prospects for getting an education look increasingly grim.
“I certainly can’t entertain him in his learning for seven hours a day,” Bitenc said. “I think he’ll get maybe 10-15 percent of what he’d get in his normal class.”
When Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools closed by March 18 to give teachers time to prepare for distance learning, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker urged school officials to pay special attention to their most vulnerable students — those with disabilities, English learners and the homeless, as well as American Indians.
“It’s one of the reasons we wanted this planning time,” she said in a recent interview.
“If you’re thinking about your students with the greatest needs first … then you will actually build a plan that meets the rest of the students’ needs, as well.”
For special education students in particular, that’s a daunting prospect.
Exacerbating the problem
Some cities and states where schools are closed because of COVID-19 opted not to offer remote instruction to anyone out of fear that their inability to appropriately educate students with disabilities would run afoul of federal disabilities laws.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos since has said that schools shouldn’t use federal law as an excuse not to teach students.
“The department recognizes that exceptional circumstances may affect how special education and related services and supports are provided to students with disabilities, and the department will offer flexibility,” her office said Monday.
Matt Shaver, a middle school science and social studies teacher at Northeast College Prep, a Minneapolis charter school, said the state wasn’t equitably serving special education kids before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Remote instruction only figures to exacerbate achievement gaps.
The parent of one of his students missed an IEP meeting last week that was supposed to prepare them for the coming weeks of distance learning.
“It’s concerning to think about (students) at home all day and with adults who aren’t trained and legally qualified to support them,” he said.
More than one family has been unreachable since schools closed.
“There are some kids that we just literally can’t get ahold of. It’s scary,” Shaver said.
No in-school option
Dan Stewart, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, which offers free legal help as the state’s designated protection and advocacy system, worries school leaders haven’t fully thought out how to meet the diverse needs of students.
“There are going to be considerable difficulties for kids with disabilities to access services,” he said. “They’re just not going to benefit from online services.”
Stewart thinks some students with disabilities should be allowed face-to-face instruction and therapeutic services in small group settings at schools.
“Just distance learning being the answer for all, I think that’s short-sighted and I think that’s fundamentally incorrect,” he said.
However, the state education department says that under the governor’s emergency order, schools may be used only for child care and meal preparation.
“We know districts and charters have been working creatively on how schools can still best serve students receiving special education in a distance learning model,” spokeswoman Wendy Hatch said.
Asked if St. Paul Public Schools has considered the possibility of allowing some students at school during the closure, the district said it will implement distance learning for all students.
St. Paul plans to use a variety of strategies to teach special education students. Those include co-teaching, modifying general education assignments, providing adaptive online assignments, and using telecommunications to teach and provide therapeutic services. Special education teams will hold IEP and 504 meetings virtually, the district said.
‘They need to follow the law’
Bitenc would like to see some students return to school.
At home, she said, her younger son’s presence will make it hard for her 13-year-old son, who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder, to focus on school.
“They’re just as entitled to an education as any other kid,” he said. “They need to follow the law.”
Bitenc’s family already has hit a roadblock on distance learning. The school-owned iPad she picked up for her 7-year-old has been locked for days because he entered the wrong password too many times. The district so far hasn’t responded to her plea for help.
“Now I have no way of accessing the distance learning at all,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
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