As New York City teachers scramble to comply with a mandate to create new remote learning plans for students with disabilities, they have been granted the authority to reduce services in some cases.
Educators were required to complete abbreviated learning plans by Wednesday, explaining what real-time services — like counseling or specialized instruction — they are providing to the roughly 200,000 students with disabilities with individualized education programs, also known as IEPs.
It may not be surprising that the city isn’t providing the exact services listed on students’ special education learning plans, as teachers across the board have been told they should not try to replicate the traditional school day in a virtual setting.
Some parents and advocates applauded the education department’s move to document the services students should be receiving now that school activities have dramatically shifted as school buildings have shuttered due to the coronavirus.
Still, the launch of new learning plans for students with disabilities raises questions about whether parents are being sufficiently included in the process, or even understand how their children’s special education services could change. Educators said it is unclear how consistent the new learning plans should be with students’ IEPs and what level of services is realistic.
“What is missing in all of this is communication to families right now about what’s happening,” said Lori Podvesker, a disability policy manager at INCLUDEnyc and parent of a student with a disability. “I would say that 99% of parents don’t even know this is occurring.”
Missing input from parents?
Multiple advocates echoed that parents should have direct input, especially if there are any reductions to their children’s services. In normal circumstances, learning plans for students with disabilities are created by a team that includes parents.
“This document needs to be rewritten in conjunction with the parents,” said Paola Jordan, a Manhattan parent and special education advocate whose 12-year-old twins both have disabilities. Though her children’s services have not been reduced, she said she “was not called to be consulted” on their remote learning plans.
Education department officials said that parents are part of the process, and the goal of the new learning plans is to figure out how to translate students’ traditional IEPs into something that makes sense in a remote environment. Some teachers said they have called parents to inform them of the new plans, and they needed parent consent to provide any therapy services by phone.
The new plans should spell out how students will receive related services such as counseling, occupational and speech therapy, which can be provided remotely, and should mirror what is required in a student’s IEP “to the greatest extent possible,” officials said, echoing federal guidance.
Schools, for example, are being given leeway to reduce the amount of targeted help students receive from special education teachers, a service known as “Special Education Teacher Support Services,” or SETSS. That service can include small group instruction in specific subjects such as reading or math, or might simply involve modifying assignments to make them more accessible based on students’ needs.
“Every element of an IEP may not transfer to a remote learning setting,” an education department spokesperson said.
Part of the rationale is that students might be sharing a device with siblings and other relatives and may not have the time each day to fulfill their mandated hours of support, according to an FAQ obtained by Chalkbeat. (Officials said that guidance was not approved by the central special education office.)
Struggling students falling further behind
Some other core elements of students’ learning plans may shift. In many schools, students with disabilities attend integrated classes with general education students that are taught by two teachers. In a virtual setting, some educators said only one teacher may attend to students at a time.
A special education teacher in Queens, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that her school has significantly curtailed some services, including small group instruction for students with disabilities. The remote learning plans don’t accurately reflect the support students are receiving, she said.
Even meeting those reduced mandates has been a challenge, as some students lack the necessary technology to participate in small group instruction, the teacher added. Others who have technology access also have struggled to engage remotely because of other barriers, such as attention or sensory issues.
“If you’re a struggling student you’re just falling further and further behind,” the teacher said. “The gap is just widening every single day.”
Department officials emphasized that remote instruction is only beginning to ramp up and remote learning will improve over time.
“No one thought this would be easy, especially for our students with disabilities, which is why closing schools was a decision we made with such careful consideration,” education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement.
“Our remote learning plans will help to ensure individualized instruction and services can continue for each student, while adapting to each family’s specific needs.”
The remote learning plans have also been the subject of tension with the city’s teachers union. The plans were initially due on March 19, the week before remote learning was set to begin. After the union conveyed “frustrations with the paperwork demands” created by the new plans, the deadline was extended to April 3, according to a union email to teachers. It was extended again to April 8.
The union also lobbied the education department to overhaul the form’s format and make it possible for teachers to directly enter the information into the city’s online special education tracking system.
The plans have generated some concern among special education advocates who are watching closely to see what the plans say and how they are implemented.
In the meantime, advocates are working just to get students with disabilities connected at all, said Katrina Feldkamp, a lawyer at Bronx Legal Services.
“We have a lot of families who are still waiting on devices,” she said. “The best remote learning plan in the world is not going to be able to help [those] students.”