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Thousands of NYC students with disabilities missed out on services last year, but the pandemic’s full impact remains murky

November 4, 2020 Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

When the coronavirus first forced New York City school buildings to shut, disability advocates began raising alarms about how remote learning would affect some 200,000 city students with special needs.

On Tuesday, an education department report showed tens of thousands of students with disabilities did not receive all of their mandated services — and significantly fewer students were referred for special education services at all.

But the annual report, which tracks whether students received the help they were entitled to during the previous school year, offers an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s impact.

“Their numbers were improving, and then everything got set back,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at Advocates for Children, which focuses on students with special needs. “What we don’t know is a whole lot about what happened in those months after school buildings closed.”

Before buildings shut down on March 16, nearly 83 percent of students with disabilities were receiving the correct services, such as a small class exclusively for students with disabilities, or a larger one with a mix of special education and general education students typically staffed by two teachers. That’s about two percentage points better than the same period the previous school year, though it also points to an enormous gap: 17 percent of students with disabilities — or nearly 32,000 children — were only receiving some of the specialized instruction they were entitled to or none at all.

Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson, wrote in an email that the city has continued to track special education services since March and indicated that 83.7 percent of students were receiving the correct services as of the end of last school year, roughly a percentage point lower than the previous school year. However, Filson said the full-year data, which included the period between March and June, was “not meaningful” because the city’s data systems are meant to track students learning in person and instruction was fully virtual in the spring.

Regardless, those statistics don’t capture some of the significant changes students experienced during the transition to remote learning. Some students lacked the technology required to keep up with their schoolwork or received little live instruction from their teachers, which was not required after buildings shut down in the spring.

Advocates also pointed to some potentially worrisome trends in the data. The number of students who were referred for special education services — either by a parent or their school — fell nearly 27 percent year-over-year to about 16,000 students. Typically, that could mean fewer students needed special education services, or the city did a better job of catching students before they needed more intensive support. But it could also mean that the pandemic led to fewer parents requesting evaluations or fewer teachers referring students for testing — possibly missing students who would benefit from additional services.

In addition, a larger share of students who were referred for special education services had their cases closed without a formal IEP meeting, which helps determine if a student is entitled to services, and if so which ones. Moroff said some families had been discouraged by their schools from moving forward in the process of seeking special education services due to the pandemic.

Filson, the department spokesperson, wrote in an email: “We have continued to accept and make referrals, conduct evaluations and monitor student progress to ensure all students with disabilities are identified and served as needed.”

There were some bright spots in the data. The report suggests that a slightly smaller share of students are facing delays being evaluated, a crucial hurdle to special education services. During the 2019-2020 school year, just over 71 percent of special education evaluations occurred within the required 60-day timeframe, about one percentage point higher than the previous year. Still, officials cautioned against drawing “any conclusions from this because all data is affected by the pandemic.”

Officials emphasized that they have been working to adapt special education to a virtual environment — including remote IEP meetings. They also noted the department began offering students with disabilities some in-person services, such as occupational and physical therapies, over the summer, and that New York City was among the first districts to offer in-person instruction this fall.

“Over the last several months, we were the first major school district to offer in-person special education services, have distributed tens of thousands of devices, and strengthened our communication with families,” schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “We’ll continue to have a laser-focus on providing students with disabilities a high-quality education both in-person and remotely.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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