Losing the stability of a school day frustrates 14-year-old Logan Heller. He regularly melts down: screaming at the top of his lungs, hitting himself in the face and fleeing from anyone who tries to calm him.
Until at least early May, the Cuero Independent School District has moved to online learning, like hundreds of other schools, to stem spread of the new coronavirus throughout Texas. That’s left Logan’s mother, Robyn Garza, with no respite and minimal assistance managing her son’s self-injurious episodes. Last week, after a virtual meeting to discuss Logan’s education plan, the district’s special education director offered to send her a speech device and instructional videos to help her continue Logan’s speech therapy.
Garza told them that isn’t going to happen. She’s having a hard enough time being a mother to her five children, let alone a speech therapist, special education teacher, occupational therapist and adaptive physical education teacher for a son with severe intellectual and medical disabilities. “I made it clear to them that there’s no homeschooling happening in my house, even for my general education kiddos, because we’re all in survival mode,” Garza said.
More than half a million students in Texas, 9.6%, receive special education services through public schools. Required by federal law and mostly paid for with state and federal funds, the programs tailor individual plans to help each of them learn. Some students may just need extra time to take math or reading exams, or assistance from a full-time aide. Others may need a team of trained specialists to help them speak, walk or hold a pencil. School districts are required to evaluate students thought to need extra help, and work with parents or guardians to draw up an annual plan.
While general education across Texas has geared back up with online classes for students stuck at home, special education is adapting slowly. Educators are overwhelmed trying to alter individual education plans and unsure how to help some students over a video screen.
More than two years ago, a federal investigation concluded Texas was illegally failing to provide thousands of students with adequate special education, and mandated fast improvements. With the arrival of COVID-19, Texas special education students are likely to fall even further behind as frayed parents try to keep up with their learning while juggling the other challenges of the shutdowns.
Federal law requires districts educating their general student populations when schools are closed to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to the same opportunities. (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is weighing pursuing congressional permission to waive parts of the federal special education law, a relief for some school districts and a nightmare for many parents.)
At a state level, the Texas Education Agency has told school districts they must, “to the greatest extent possible,” continue the special education each student was receiving before schools closed and be creative about bringing some accommodations — including extra time and small-group learning — into a virtual environment.
Many Texas school districts are scrambling to figure out how to provide services like physical therapy over video and how to prevent severe delays in evaluating students. Some districts, like Austin ISD, have slowly and inconsistently rolled out guidance to parents on how to teach their kids with disabilities. Others, like Alief ISD in the Houston area, have already started training all teachers to adjust their lessons for kids with disabilities.
“You may not be able to provide related services like you have been able to in person. But that doesn’t mean you offer nothing,” said Kristin McGuire, director of governmental relations at the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education. “You document what you can do and what you’re not able to do, and we’ll figure it out later.”
Students who lose ground during the school closures will likely be eligible for extra professional help next school year. But for now parents are stepping in as amateur special education teachers if they don’t want their kids to fall further behind.
Stephanie Moody had already been fighting to get Killeen ISD to follow the individualized education plan for her 9-year-old daughter, Samantha, and help her read on grade level. Samantha is dyslexic and qualified for instruction through a special reading program under federal law — but a TEA investigation last year concluded the district wasn’t using the program properly, delaying Samantha’s progress.
Now, Moody is worried Samantha will continue to struggle, potentially through the end of the school year. Moody’s internet has been spotty, the online programs have crashed, and she has an eighth grade son with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who also needs her attention. School districts “have been given a hard task, and there’s no precedent for this,” Moody said. “I also don’t think it’s fair to have these kids trying to teach them a new curriculum with programs that don’t work from home when many of them don’t have parents helping them and some of them don’t have access to technology.”
Evaluating whether a student needs to be in special education or needs a change in services can take weeks if not months; in the meantime, students aren’t learning. School district advocates are encouraging the Trump administration to waive the strict timelines for completing evaluations since districts are struggling to meet students’ basic needs and some parts of an evaluation need to happen face to face.
That could be disastrous for those students. “This disparity between this subpopulation of kids with disabilities versus any other grouping is wide. Any delays … are going to exacerbate that gap. That’s a child’s future that you’re diminishing,” said Steven Aleman, a lawyer for Disability Rights Texas. He recommends districts communicate delays to parents as soon as possible, train them on how to be teachers for their children, and find creative alternatives to in-person therapies.
In a letter to parents this week, Killeen ISD said it would ask parents who cannot attend a virtual meeting to adjust their child’s learning plan to sign a “postponement waiver.” District officials told The Texas Tribune they have also been calling parents to explain that a signed waiver for a special education evaluation will allow them to conduct a proper face-to-face assessment and observation in a school setting once school has resumed. But given the uncertainty of the pandemic’s timeline, it’s unclear how long that postponement would last.
For Garza, the parent in Cuero ISD, the uncertain timeline makes the pandemic more devastating than 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which destroyed two bedrooms in her Coastal Bend home and wrapped the family’s trampoline around a tree. At the time, the family evacuated and stayed at a relative’s house in Austin for a few days until they could assess the damage.
But now, with cases of COVID-19 piling up everywhere in Texas, she can’t evacuate. Her son Logan, who has severe autism, is also immunocompromised, meaning any visitors to provide additional services put him at risk of disease or death.
“It’s stagnant. It’s like we’re in the eye of the hurricane every day, all day, and we don’t know when this stagnant storm is going to move and you can’t escape,” she said. “There’s nowhere to go.”