AUSTIN, Texas — Eli Clark has been waiting nearly a year for help. A good student with dreams of working in neuroscience, Eli, a 17-year-old junior who uses the pronouns they and them, did very well in middle school and was accepted to a competitive magnet high school.
But at the new school, Eli struggled with more challenging coursework and shorter deadlines. The teenager would write down the wrong number when solving a math problem, even knowing the right answer, or read the same page of a book several times to pick up basic details.
“It’s a whole cycle of annoyance and feeling helpless and hopeless,” Eli said.
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Eli’s 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 2020 to launch the process to formally evaluate her child for dyslexia and dyscalculia, a math 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, Texas, to start the evaluation process. Nearly two months went by. And then, on March 13, the school district shut down due to 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. To Eli and Stuart, the delay suggests special education students have become a “lower priority” to the district.
“The whole thing is just so frustrating,” Stuart said. “It just makes me so crazy.”
Under federal law, students with a disability are entitled to special education services to help them learn. With an IEP, students can get accommodations, like 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 coronavirus pandemic has brought a halt to 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.
These students, already among the most vulnerable, are at risk of slipping further behind at a time when teaching and learning have become much more difficult because of the pandemic.
While getting a national picture of the problem is hard, lawyers and advocates in eight of the nine states contacted by The Hechinger Report said they were aware of districts that had put special education evaluations on hold. In a survey released in October by the American Institutes for Research, 73 percent of school districts said the pandemic had made it more challenging to accommodate students with disabilities.
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. Doing these tests safely is often 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.”
Texas, where Eli lives, for years systematically blocked students from special education. But the state has been slowly trying to ensure a fairer system for evaluating students, although it still has a long way to go, education lawyers say. In August, the state education agency issued guidance 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.
Eli was already receiving accommodations in school for anxiety, depression and PTSD through a 504 Plan, a school-created document that gives students with disabilities accommodations in their classes. After the dyslexia assessment, Eli was also able to get some other accommodations, like extended time on tests. But they and their parents thought an IEP would provide more help. They also worried that without it, the magnet school could kick Eli out if they fell behind because of the learning disability. (The school’s principal referred a reporter to the Austin Independent School District, which declined to comment on Eli’s specific complaint or experience.)
Last June, nearly five months after requesting an evaluation, Eli’s mom contacted Disability Rights Texas for assistance. On Oct. 2, after several attempts to negotiate with the school district had gone nowhere, Rynders said, the organization filed a complaint with the state education agency. The complaint said the Austin Independent School District had denied a timely special education evaluation to Eli and another student, 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, as “data is changing daily.” In an email, she wrote that the district “remains focused on completing the evaluations and monitoring updated completion rates.” The district has tried to complete portions of IEP evaluations remotely when possible and resumed face-to-face evaluation meetings in late August, she added. Evaluators are now working evenings and weekends, Nguyen said.
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 last March and restarted them in late September. District officials say they hope to clear the list by the end of April.
Boston parent Amanda Chen signed a consent form last February to have her 3-year-old son evaluated for special education services. In early fall, he received some assessments that showed he needed significant help, Chen said, but there was no IEP meeting in sight. (Three-year-olds who qualify for special education can be eligible for free developmental preschool.)
“I just feel really powerless,” she said in mid-October. “There’s nothing I can do to make this happen.”
Ethan D’Ablemont-Burnes, Boston Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for special education, said the district was doing its best to address the backlog. It is expanding the number of locations for in-person assessments and has invested in software for more virtual evaluations.
“We understand the urgency and importance of getting these done well,” D’Ablemont-Burnes said. “We’re working really hard with our staff. We understand that there are kids that depend on and need it.”
At the end of October, Boston Public Schools staff drafted an IEP for Chen’s son — right as rising coronavirus rates forced all students back into remote learning. Even though schools are closed, in-person assessments are continuing.
Sheila Desai, director of educational practice for the National Association of School Psychologists, said she was particularly concerned that districts with a backlog might struggle to quickly process evaluations. Her organization has advocated for the federal Department of Education to provide guidance on how school districts should prioritize outstanding evaluations.
The Department of Education has offered some guidance on IEPs during the pandemic, but has largely left it to states to determine how to handle situations in which districts don’t comply. Last 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 that 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.”
Oversight to ensure timely evaluations is left to states, a department spokesperson said, noting that state education agencies also have the authority to determine appropriate action if a district fails to meet the requirements. The department also advises school districts to consider strategies for conducting assessments remotely, according to the agency spokesperson.
Many districts have found ways to do just that. Advocates at Disability Rights Iowa have been pushing school districts to do all the evaluations they possibly can while schools are remote, including reviewing existing student records and giving tests that can be done virtually. This way, advocates say, students can at least have an IEP in place this school year, which can be reevaluated when classrooms return to normal and supplemented with additional evaluations.
In Texas, Rynders said that one Houston-area district kept school psychologists working through the summer to process the backlog of evaluations. Most of those evaluations were conducted remotely, he said.
Still, advocates acknowledge it isn’t feasible to complete every aspect of an evaluation virtually. Filling out some tests and questionnaires can be done easily in the online format. Determining whether a student benefits from sitting near a teacher is more complicated.
“A lot of assessment tools do lend themselves to virtual use,” said Desai of the National Association of School Psychologists. “But not all.”
Special education experts also warn of the risk of students being incorrectly identified for a disability if the assessments are conducted hastily or online. Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said that Black, Latino and Native students, who enter special education at higher rates than their white peers, are most likely to be misidentified. That could mean they are exposed to a less rigorous curriculum, lower expectations, social stigma and a more difficult transition to postsecondary education, she said.
But simply putting IEPs on hold until schools reopen “can’t be the answer,” Whittaker said.
“We’ve got to find another solution,” she said. “Districts need to think about their evaluation policies and find different ways to gather comprehensive data about students and make these decisions.”
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 asked that her last name be omitted 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 that help them learn alongside their peers.
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. In 2019, that amounted to about a third of in-person school days.
Last 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 coronavirus pandemic.
That month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom 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. Gov. 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 ought to use available data, even if it’s incomplete, to ensure students at least receive the support educators already know is needed. Whittaker of 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.
To that end, Maya said she asked to see the evaluations in case there were simple accommodations she could make at home, but her request was denied. However, she refused to give up: “I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to push back,” she said in the fall, “because I’m not willing to accept that for the rest of the year.”
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, Alice Stuart, finally heard from the Austin district: Eli’s evaluation would begin the following week, socially distanced, with participants wearing masks. 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.
Eli said they were glad the process would move forward. Though Eli has appreciated some aspects of remote learning, including fewer distractions while they work, the experience has illustrated, to them, how districts fail to prioritize students who are not “neurotypical.”
“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.”
This story about special education services was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.