HOUSTON – For parents of students with special education needs, the back to school debate is about more than preventing the spread of the coronavirus. For the parents of children who live with minor to severe disabilities, the push for schools to re-open is about making sure their students don’t fall any further behind.
Holly Abney’s 6-year-old daughter Embery has Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum.
“She was born without, basically the middle of her brain that transfers right brain to left brain…left brain to right brain,” Abney explained. It affects her motor skills, such as walking and the ability to feed herself.
Embery hasn’t been in a classroom since the Alvin Independent School District went on Spring Break and switched classes to virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. Between services provided by her school and private therapies, Embery usually receives physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and music therapy. But that all came to a halt when school doors shuttered.
“Her therapist was not comfortable traveling into homes after we started finding out about COVID, because a lot of the other kids that she saw had immune system deficiencies and she didn’t want to put anybody at risk,” Abney said.
Abney herself is a seventh grade English teacher and is entering her eighteenth year of teaching. She says she ready get back in the classroom with her kids.
She’s also eager for Embery to get back to the progress she was making months ago before everything came to a halt.
“She’s made some progress because I was able to kind of work with her one on one at home,” Abney said. “She hasn’t regressed but she hasn’t made progress. And it’s been very hard kind of watching that. As a mom wanting to help but not really knowing how to help, because I’m a teacher but I’m not a physical therapist, occupational therapist.”
“It’s been very hard to handle. Kinda helpless feeling, you know…you really want to help but don’t know how to help,” she said.
Abney is hopeful that when Embery returns to school on August 24, she will be able to get back on track and making positive strides again.
Help for those in need
Texas State Rep. Dan Huberty wants schools to open their doors to special education students now.
“Those kids need to get back into schools. The best place for those kids is back in school. We want to make sure that the focus is identifying those kids that need the physical therapies, that need all of those resources,” Huberty said.
As the Chairman of the House Committee on Public Education, this fight is personal for Huberty. He knows how it feels to raise a child with a special need. His son Ryan, now a freshman at Texas Tech, was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia at six.
Huberty is pushing to make sure the funding is in place to make it possible for students to go back to in-person learning and says if districts don’t have teachers willing to go in and teach face-to-face, then they need to examine other options.
“If they can’t get the staff to show up and do that work, and I view that as just as essential as doing any H-E-B or anything like that,” Huberty said. “If the school districts are unable, or don’t have the ability to provide those services, then they need to find people that can provide these services. They need to go out and privatize it.”
He commends the districts that are working hard to get special education students back in the classroom. But has strong words for leaders and the districts not working to bring kids back for in-person learning.
“The hell with you…you don’t have a special needs kid. Talk to those parents about that. Talk to those parents and find out just how important it is for those kids to be back in school,” Huberty said.
On July 16, civil rights attorney Patrick Donahue and brain injury rights group announced a national class-action lawsuit to force schools to reopen and provide in-person services. The suit, brought forth on behalf of millions of special education students across the country is seeking compensation for the failure for schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) since schools closed in March due to coronavirus.
The lawsuit names the Texas Education Agency and many Texas school districts.
“Our firm represents public schools throughout the state of Texas, and most of our clients have been named in that lawsuit,” said Geneva Jones-Taylor of Powell, Youngblood and managing partner of the Special Education Law Practice Group & Disability Rights Practice Group.
“Compensatory services” the parents are requesting in the lawsuit are accommodations that most Texas school districts are already prepared to offer students, Jones-Taylor says.
“Those students who suffered an educational loss because of their disability-related to the COVID closure will be compensated. And that compensation will look like many things. Some of it may be extra time. Some of it may be extra services. There’s all kinds of things the school district can do to provide that (compensation). The difference is, it’s individualized,” said Jones-Taylor.
At the local level, the back-to-school plan for special needs students looks like this:
- In the Houston Independent School District, all students will be virtual until October 19.
- In Fort Bend Independent School District, students returned to both in-person and virtual learning began on August 17.
- In Alief Independent School District, classes have been virtual since August 6, and though there is no return date for in-person learning yet, according to a district rep, “special education students will be prioritized.”
- In Conroe Independent School District, students with the most significant needs were invited back to campus for in-person instruction when school began on August 19.
- In Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, in-person and remote learning begins on September 8, where “resources, accommodations, and/or modifications to support students with disabilities and English learners in the remote environment will be provided.
Becoming your student’s best advocate
Jones-Taylor admits the return to school is going look different for many special education students.
“For some of our teachers, they may have to wear masks that are clear. That’s available. They may have face shields, those are available. The handover hand may include a glove that the teacher or the paraprofessional is using, in order to work with that child.”
She wants parents to feel empowered to advocate for their students.
“We need parents to talk about what they’re seeing in the home. We need parents to talk about what kind of deficits they’ve seen, or what they were able to do or weren’t able to do. Or what they know works for the child,” says Jones-Taylor.
She also wants parents to know if they notice that their child’s needs are not being met, there are options.
“If this isn’t working, tell us, and if we see that it’s not working, we’re going to tell you and we’re gonna come back to the table we’re gonna look at all the evidence we have, and use that to develop a plan to get the child back on track and get them into the educational environment and to succeed at the maximum and appropriate (level),” says Jones-Taylor.
And Abney offers this optimistic message to other parents.
“Keep fighting for your kids. Keep doing the investigations for your kids and it’ll all work out,” she said.
Texas Education Agency’s Plan to Keep Students on Track
What is TEA doing to ensure that SPED kids don’t get left behind?
Ensuring that all students, regardless of circumstance, receive equitable access to a high-quality public education is critically important. Faced with the current public health challenges, TEA has taken the following steps to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the educational processes of students receiving Special Education Services:
- TEA purchased access to a state-of-the-art platform for speech therapy that gives 10,000 students access to these services. Additionally, TEA negotiated a statewide price agreement for districts to access this platform so that their students may receive continuity of services both in-person and remotely.
- TEA has developed a robust platform to serve students with dyslexia during both in-person and remote instruction, enabling a streamlined continuity of services.
- TEA continues to provide clear guidance to school districts on their responsibility of ensuring students obtaining special education services receive what is entitled to them pursuant to their Individualized Education Plans (IEP).
- TEA has developed training videos to guide school systems in providing services to special education students. Additional video resources are forthcoming.
- TEA established a Special Education Task Force consisting of school district administrators, teachers, and staff. This committee of over 40 professionals provides guidance, reviews materials, and serves as a liaison from the field to the agency.
- TEA is developing videos for parents and guardians that will help aid their understanding of how to effectively take part in their student’s admission, review, and dismissal (ARD) meetings, along with other processes related to specialized instructional services.
If individual districts aren’t meeting their needs, what can TEA do at the state level?
It is TEA’s responsibility to monitor the implementation of special education services across the state. If school districts fail to meet the needs of students receiving special education services, TEA will require that district to take corrective action. Furthermore, the district will be monitored intensively to ensure compliance.
What recourse do parents have if they’re not satisfied with their district’s response/plan?
While school districts have developed plans to educate and accommodate the needs of special education students during the 2020-2021 school year, they must ensure that all provisions of these students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEP) are met. If a parent or guardian does not feel that this is happening, their options for recourse include:
- Filing a complaint with the school district
- If their concerns are not satisfactorily addressed at the local level, filing a complaint with TEA
Resources and Important Links for Parents and Guardians of Special Education Students:
Questions about Special Education in Texas?
SPEDTex provides resources to help you understand your child’s disability and your rights and responsibilities under (IDEA) Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: https://www.spedtex.org/
Questions about the Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Process?
ARD Buddy is filled with many resources to help you navigate the process, including information on how.
Need information on the Special Education Dispute Resolution Process?
Below are helpful links to assist you in navigating the dispute process.
TEA’s Special Education Dispute Resolution Handbook explains how the agency processes special education complaints
Special Education Dispute Resolution Processes
The State Complaint Resolution System: A Comparison of Services Available to Parents and Schools
Special Education Complaints Process
Seeking resources and information for an Autistic student, Autism Speaks offers many resources.
Autism in Black
Autism in Black aims to provide support for Black parents who have a child on the spectrum, through educational and advocacy services, and reduce the stigma associated with ASD in the Black community.
Hispanic Autism Services
Michigan-based organization to bring awareness and services to Hispanic students on the Autism Spectrum