News: NPR reporting on special education during the pandemic

Can legal assistance correct for children's losses?

Cory Turner and Rebecca Klein of (US) National Public Radio reported two stories about special education services, children with disabilities, and their families on 16 June 2021. Mr. Turner's and Ms. Klein's articles revealed how, despite gaurantees based on the US Individuals with Disabilites Education Act (IDEA), changes in schooling caused problems for children and families and how parents sought assistance, some with greater success than others.

In the first story, "After Months Of Special Education Turmoil, Families Say Schools Owe Them" (aired during the morning news cycle), Mr. Turner and Ms. Klein described multiple cases of individual children with disabilities who we unable to obtain needed services during the pandemic-related shut-downs of schools in 2020 and 2021. They also described the efforts parents exerted to help their children and the parents' perspectives on the problems.

Parents sometimes sought "compensatory services" to help their children avoid additional setbacks and to help them regain lost gains. Schools, of course, had difficulty providing IDEA-mandated services, let alone additional help in virtual environments. Here's a clip showing the perspectives

The term [“compensatory services”] isn't featured in IDEA but comes from past case law, as courts have sought a way of forcing schools to make up for failing to provide necessary special education services. Families now argue schools are legally required to do whatever it takes to get their special education students to where they would have been had there been no pandemic at all.

To school districts, though, the words "compensatory services" strike a nerve, because they often involve attorneys and costly remedies and because, districts say, they imply wrongdoing.

"A compensatory education service is to be provided when a school failed the student, and here during the pandemic, it's hard to say that was the fault of the school or anyone, really. It was an act of God," says Andrew Manna, an Indiana-based attorney who advises school districts.

In the second story, "Parents Say Schools Must Make Up For Failing Kids With Disabilities During Pandemic" (aired during the evening news cycle and presented in interview format), Mr. Turner and Ms. Klein reported parents' concern that "remote learning didn't work for many kids with disabilities," that students lost access to services and slipped backwards on skills they had previously learned.

The reporters explained that federal laws familiar to most readers require individualized services and that parents have a role in planning those services. Mr. Turner and Ms. Klein indicated that parents, who often work with front-line members of schools' faculty and staff, did not seek to blame individual teachers or assistants; they were concerned that bureaucratic systems failed to adapt to pandemic-associated problems and adopt practices and procedures that helped their children.

Some parents sought legal assistance to rectify the situations in which they found their children. According to Mr. Turner,

[W]e spoke with one advocate the other day who told us, where they work, the only families who are getting compensatory services right now all have one thing in common. They all hired an advocate or attorney who understands the law.

Read (or hear) the two stories from NPR:

I’ll be monitoring for follow-up stories. Interested readers may want to do so, too.