“It’s a whole cycle of annoyance and feeling helpless and hopeless,” Eli said.
Their math teacher suggested testing for dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading. A school official who tested Eli found “mild characteristics” of the disability and recommended reading intervention. Eli’s mom, Alice Stuart, contacted the school in January to launch the process to formally evaluate her child for dyslexia and dyscalculia, a math learning disability. The family hoped Eli could get an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legal document that qualifies students for special education and lays out the services and accommodations they will receive.
The family waited for Eli’s school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, to start the evaluation process. Nearly two months went by. Then, on March 13, the school district shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Eli was still waiting months after classes resumed remotely in August, with no word from their school or district as to when the evaluation would start.
Under federal law, students with a disability are entitled to special-education services to help them learn. With an IEP, students can get accommodations, such as sitting close to a teacher or having more time on a test, based on their needs. IEPs can also protect students with disabilities who may otherwise be disciplined or graded harshly. But in some school districts across the country, the pandemic has halted the proceedings that determine whether students are eligible for these services. Thousands of children are in limbo, without the support and accommodations they need, parents and advocates say.
The districts say they’re limited in what they can do. The process of assessing students for special education can be lengthy and often requires a barrage of assessments, including classroom observations, a psychological evaluation and academic tests. Performing these tests safely has often been difficult, if not impossible, during the pandemic.
But advocates and lawyers note that the federal government has not significantly altered the rules governing special education: In most cases, students must be evaluated for IEPs upon a parent’s request, and typically, the evaluations must start within 45 days of that request and be completed no more than 60 days later.
“Tons of students who need to be started on special-education plans just aren’t,” said Elie Zwiebel, program director of Education First at the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center. “School districts are essentially renouncing their responsibility to do so.”
Schools obligated to evaluate
The state education agency in Texas, where Eli lives, issued guidance in August reminding school districts that they were still obligated to evaluate students for special education, despite the pandemic. The agency acknowledged that some aspects of an evaluation would be harder to accomplish remotely but said school districts must do what they can to complete assessments in a timely manner under the law.
Not all districts have complied, said Dustin Rynders, a supervising attorney with the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. “In a number of districts, they just said, ‘We aren’t doing any evaluations right now,’ ” he said.
On Oct. 2, Rynders’s organization filed a complaint with the state education agency on behalf of Eli and another student. The complaint said that the Austin Independent School District had failed to provide a timely special-education evaluation to the students, denying them their right to a free and appropriate public education under the law.
Rynders said Eli’s case appears to be part of a pattern of the Austin school district ignoring parents’ requests for help with their children’s learning difficulties during a time when that support is even more critical. “A student going without an evaluation means they are going to continue to struggle without the services they need to help turn things around,” he said.
Cristina Nguyen, a senior communications specialist with the Austin Independent School District, declined to say how many students were awaiting evaluations because “data is changing daily.” In an email, she wrote that the district “remains focused on completing the evaluations and monitoring updated completion rates.” She declined to comment on Eli’s specific complaint or experience.
When districts that have fallen behind resume assessments, advocates worry it could take many months for them to work through the backlog. Boston Public Schools, for instance, began the school year with nearly 1,800 students waiting on assessments, school district officials say. (That figure includes those who already had an IEP and were seeking a review of the services they receive.) The district halted evaluations in March and restarted them in late September. District officials say they hope to clear the list by the end of April.
The Education Department has offered some guidance on IEPs during the pandemic, but it has largely left it to states to determine how to handle situations in which districts don’t comply. In July, the agency released general guidance acknowledging that school districts may be unable to complete in-person assessments within the required timeline and said such cases may count as an exception under the law. But the guidance implied there were limits to how much districts could rely on this provision, saying the timeline “cannot be extended for all children within a state under the assumption that COVID-19 is an exceptional family circumstance for all families.”
Delays mount for students
When districts don’t work with families to find temporary solutions, even the savviest parents struggle to support their children. Maya, a special-education professor who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used to protect her children’s privacy, has a 10-year-old daughter with rare connective tissue and blood pressure disorders, and a 7-year-old son with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and intermittent explosive disorder. Both children have 504 plans, the school-created documents that give students with disabilities accommodations in their classes.
Maya’s daughter is given additional time on assignments and leniency for getting to school late or leaving early. But Maya said these accommodations are not enough for her daughter, who loses key classroom time whenever her conditions flare up. Last year, that amounted to about a third of in-person school days.
In late January, Maya requested that her daughter be evaluated for an IEP. The school completed some assessments but asked for an extension that prolonged the process to March. Three days before Maya was scheduled to meet with school district officials to discuss the findings and her daughter’s eligibility for an IEP, her children’s Bay Area public school shuttered in response to the pandemic.
That month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an education finance bill that waived many special-education timelines, including the right of families to receive a plan for evaluating their children for disabilities within 15 days of requesting one. Newsom reinstated the timelines in July.
Maya waited for the district to reschedule but said she was told that more assessments were needed and that initial IEPs were paused. In the meantime, Maya has worked with her daughter’s teacher to develop a dramatically scaled-back workload, which she said has reduced her daughter’s anxiety and physical pain but could hinder her ability to keep up academically.
Experts agree that schools should use available data, even if it’s incomplete, to ensure students at least receive the support educators already know is needed. Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said schools can use partial evaluations, like the one for Maya’s daughter, as jumping-off points for getting a child help during school closures. “There’s no reason not to move forward,” she said.
The district’s schools have now resumed initial assessments remotely, including record reviews and interviews with families, teachers and other providers, according to an email from a district spokesperson. The district has to get through a backlog of referrals, the spokesperson wrote, which it is addressing to “the greatest extent possible.”
In mid-November, almost a year after her initial request, Maya received a long-awaited email from the school’s education specialist, saying her daughter’s IEP process was being restarted — though she has yet to see any paperwork with official timelines.
In late October, Eli’s mom finally heard from the Austin district: Eli’s evaluation would begin the following week, with participants wearing masks and practicing social distancing. On Oct. 30, she received a response to the family’s complaint from the Texas Education Agency. The agency said Eli’s school had failed to provide them with an evaluation as required by law. The school must now determine how to provide services to rectify any academic setbacks from the delay if Eli is found to have a disability.
“This isn’t how education should be working,” Eli said. “It shouldn’t take nine months to do a request that’s not out of the usual.”