In response to pandemic disruptions, New York City officials required every school to offer special education services last year outside regular hours to any family who wanted them.
But that won’t be the case this coming school year, education officials said. Instead, the education department is vowing to determine what extra instruction or therapies children may need on an “individual basis” — decisions that will be left to the teams that set students’ individualized education programs, also known as IEPs.
Extra small group instruction or “related services” such as physical and occupational therapy, may be provided after school, on Saturdays, during the school day, or through a voucher for students the city determines need extra help, officials said. The city is also expanding a new program for students with significant sensory issues, which has been popular with some parents. It will launch at 70 sites this fall, up from 10.
The education department is setting aside $100 million for those extra services, down from roughly $200 million last year, according to city officials. Last year’s recovery program was delayed for months after the school year started. Schools struggled to attract staff to work the extra hours and the vast majority of students did not participate, though officials have yet to provide a final tally. The program earned mixed reviews from parents and educators.
There are many unanswered questions about how this year’s program will operate, including which students will be eligible, when parents will be informed of how they can access extra services, who will be responsible for providing them, and even when they’ll begin. City officials did not say if they will provide yellow bus service for programs that will be provided outside of the regular school day, a major roadblock to participation last school year.
“To the outward facing part of the world, it’s very last minute,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at the nonprofit Advocates for Children. “It’s hard for me to imagine, if this hasn’t been communicated to the schools yet, how it’s going to play out successfully.”
Students with disabilities have a legal right to “compensatory services” if their school does not provide all of the specialized instruction or therapies included on their IEP. And a significant share of students with disabilities missed out on special education instruction or therapies that were difficult or impossible to provide during remote learning or as staff were stretched thin.
But successfully advocating for compensatory services can be time consuming and require legal help. If the district does not agree to provide those extra services, families can go through an administrative legal process to compel the city to provide them, though that process is complex and has faced extreme backlogs that often stretch many months. Advocates for Children filed a lawsuit in an effort to force the city to create a more streamlined process, though that suit has not been successful so far.
The city’s promise to assess whether students with disabilities need these extra compensatory services could signal that they will be easier to get without going through that cumbersome process, though it’s unclear how generous the city will be in recommending additional support.
“This administration is committed to course correcting any pandemic-related learning loss for our most vulnerable students and expanding access to critical programs that address unique, individual needs,” Nicole Brownstein, an education department spokesperson, wrote in an email. She added that extra services will be available on Saturdays at multiple sites in every borough.
Even if the city instructs schools to provide more compensatory services, Moroff noted that many students aren’t scheduled to have an IEP meeting until the spring, raising questions about how quickly students will have access to extra help.
“If a student’s last IEP happened last April, they’re not regularly scheduled for an IEP meeting until next April,” she said. “Sure, a family could ask, but that shifts the burden onto the family.”
Bronx mom Damaris Rodriguez said she is eager to know if her 12-year-old son Maliek, who is on the autism spectrum, might be eligible for services and when they may be provided.
Maliek missed some of his speech and occupational therapy sessions during the pandemic because they conflicted with remote instruction. She said extra services could help him self-regulate when he’s feeling antsy, work on reading comprehension skills, and even learn how to share his feelings with his peers and teachers.
“Maliek faced a lot of different challenges emotionally in terms of expressing himself,” Rogriguez said, “whereas pre-pandemic he was able to talk or open up.”
But she is also wary of the department’s special education recovery programs. Last year, she pulled Maliek out of the recovery program after a month because he wasn’t receiving the therapies she believed he needed. Figuring out transportation without yellow bus service was a challenge.
Rodroguez said she’s frustrated the city hasn’t communicated more clearly to parents what extra services to expect this school year and when they will be provided, as she is setting up extra activities like basketball that might conflict with Saturday special education programs.
“Will I have to tell my son he can’t play basketball because it falls on Saturdays?” Rodriguez wondered. “When are you going to let parents know?”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.