For thousands of students with disabilities in New York City, the pandemic upended crucial services, from physical and occupational therapies that were difficult to deliver remotely, to special education classes that were suddenly virtual and staffed by one teacher instead of two.
In an acknowledgment that these disruptions have knocked many children off track, city officials announced earlier this month that every student with an individualized education program — or roughly 200,000 children with disabilities — will be eligible for extra special education programming after school and on Saturdays in addition to whatever services they normally receive.
The program is the widest-reaching effort so far to address learning gaps for students with disabilities caused by the pandemic. And it has won praise from some advocates who see the move as a proactive step to provide extra help rather than relying on families to file legal complaints through a backlogged administrative process that can impose financial costs and take many months to resolve.
“We’re cautiously optimistic and excited,” said Amy Leipziger, an attorney at Queens Legal Services, an organization that provides legal help for low-income families.
But she and others have lots of unanswered questions about which services will be provided, how families can access them, and whether they will be sufficiently tailored to each student’s needs.
Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about the city’s plan to provide afternoon and Saturday services to students with disabilities.
The city plans to focus on therapies and literacy support
When the pandemic hit, many services became difficult or impossible to deliver, including counseling, speech, physical, and occupational therapies. Some parents tried to become de facto therapists, helping their children through virtual sessions and buying their own materials to help with motor skills, though that wasn’t tenable for all families and some students simply couldn’t engage with remote therapy.
These services will be available to students during the after-school and Saturday sessions, officials said. In addition, students will receive small group instruction that will focus on literacy interventions, said Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson.
Every school will provide expanded services
The “vast majority” of the city’s $251 million in additional spending on special education this year will flow to school budgets to provide services outside the traditional school day, officials said, with principals scheduling times that work well for their families. (Department officials did not say exactly what share of the $251 million will be devoted to after-school and Saturday sessions.)
Some programming will be provided outside of schools, too. “Additional funds will be used for centrally managed sites to support students with sensory needs,” a department spokesperson wrote.
The program won’t launch on the first day of school
The school year is slated to begin Sept. 13, but the after-school and Saturday services for students with disabilities will begin in October or early November, Styer said.
Families won’t have to sign up, but it’s unclear how schools will identify students for extra support
Any student with an individualized education program is eligible and families won’t need to sign up. Schools will contact families and notify them about available programming, officials said.
That approach means that families won’t be required to get in touch with their school to access services, but it also raises questions about how schools will make decisions about which students need extra help and what specific services to provide. Advocates also raised concerns about whether the city would communicate effectively with families who don’t speak English and whether services would be provided in a student’s native language.
“This is one of those examples where the idea is really sound but the implementation raises a lot of logistical questions,” Leipziger said.
How often will services be provided and how will they be staffed?
Other than promising a slew of therapies and small group instruction focused on literacy, the department hasn’t offered concrete examples about what that will look like in practice, including how many sessions a week students can attend and what the hours will be — important details for families who may want to participate in after-school programs or need to arrange childcare.
Education officials indicated that the programming will be provided by teachers at each student’s school. Still, some advocates said there are often shortages of therapists and principals said it might be difficult to recruit educators to work overtime after more than a year of pandemic teaching that has burned many teachers out.
“Do people have enough bandwidth staffing wise to sustain this?” asked one Manhattan principal who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. She added that she has received few details about how the expanded special education programming would operate. “We can’t really plan if we don’t know who we’re planning for.”
How individualized will the programming be?
Multiple advocates said they are concerned that schools will offer a fixed menu of special education services rather than figuring out what each student missed last year in consultation with parents and offering services tailored to those gaps.
“What is most important for us is that there’s an individualized determination of what the students’ needs are and likewise an individualized determination of the assignment of services,” said Rebecca Shore, the litigation director for the nonprofit group Advocates for Children.
The organization filed a class action lawsuit last year demanding the city come up with a streamlined system for providing compensatory services rather than relying on the formal legal complaint process. Education department officials did not respond to a question about whether they considered the after-school and Saturday sessions to be “compensatory” in nature, a distinction that has legal implications.
Officials said the afternoon and Saturday programming offered to students will be “based on consideration of their individual needs,” including their experiences during the pandemic.
Will students get transportation?
City officials did not respond to questions about whether they would provide transportation after school or on Saturdays for students who need it. The education department did not initially offer round-trip transportation options for summer school among students who typically require it during the school year but eventually promised to reimburse taxi services.