Miriam Mohammed and her family, including Noah (middle). Photo courtesy of subject.
Miriam Mohammed and her family, including Noah (middle). Photo courtesy of subject.

The struggle to adjust to life in a pandemic has been difficult for most people, but it is especially burdensome for students who need individualized help.

When Noah’s school moved to remote learning only earlier this year, his parents saw a difference in his motor and social skills immediately. 

“He regressed a lot. How do we know he’s regressing? We see more refusals,” Miriam Mohammed, Noah’s mother, told COURIER. Her third grader was diagnosed with severe autism when he was four years old. “We got him a whiteboard so that we can get him holding that marker and start writing. The great thing about a big whiteboard is that he’s lifting his arm, building some muscle strength, and refining his motor skills, but we see a lot more refusals than before.”

For example, she continued, just getting Noah to hold a pen and work on writing the alphabet—an important goal of his Individualized Education Program (IEP) to strengthen his fine motor skills—has become harder.

That’s because Noah isn’t currently getting the in-person services or guidance his family needs. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mohammad said, her son was assigned a special education curriculum that involved a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a specialized physical education program, counseling, one-on-one aides, and additional services to care for his special needs. But when his school in the Chicagoland area shut down in the spring, all of that suddenly went away, and his parents were forced to rearrange their lives completely. 

The struggle to adjust to life in a pandemic has been difficult for most people, but it is especially burdensome for children who need extra attention like Noah. Fatima Fadag, a special education teacher at George Mason University, told COURIER that the new public health and social distancing rules have increased overwhelming anxiety and frustration for many students, but particularly for those with developmental and learning disabilities.

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“People with autism tend to really need routine,” Fadag explained. “They have a hard time not having a routine, and that’s just because of the way that their brains function. It’s easier for them to have some sort of routine to stick to, and not having that routine makes learning—and life—a lot more difficult for them.”

Because the Trump administration failed to come up with any kind of national strategy to deal with the pandemic, schools across the country were forced to close earlier this year in order to reduce the spread of the virus. Although Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has urged school districts to provide all essential resources and services for children who receive special education and expressed concerns over the adverse consequences of remote learning, she has failed to offer districts suitable guidance on how to safely resume in-person classes. With fall semester already halfway over, many remain shuttered, or have been forced to close once again because of COVID cases. Education leaders and parents across the country have pleaded for assistance, to no avail. 

Because the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus crisis, leading to schools suspending in-person learning in order to protect those at risk of getting sick, families of students of students with developmental disabilities have been left without access to essential resources. As a result, these kids have fallen behind.

Federal Law Promises Students With Disabilities Access to Quality Education

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent data, 7.1 million students receive special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That’s about 14% of all public school students. The IDEA is a federal law requiring school districts to provide proper education and accommodations “to the greatest extent possible” for students with disabilities.

In May, however, Parents Together Action, an organization with 2 million members, released a survey that found only 20%, or one in five, families of students who need individualized support said they were getting the services they need and are entitled to under federal law. Nearly 40% said they are not receiving any support at all. 

As federal lawsuits filed in Hawaii, Illinois, and Pennsylvania allege, thousands of students with disabilities have not received the quality education entitled to them by law due to coronavirus-related school closures. The plaintiffs in these lawsuits have asked that their respective state’s education department pay for their essential special-needs services. 

In August, 100 plaintiffs in more than 20 states filed a similar federal lawsuit in New York City seeking national class-action status. The lawsuit, filed “against every school district in the United States,” alleges that schools have denied students with special needs their right to education. It also requests that each state’s department of education pay compensatory and punitive damages due to the financial and emotional burden it has placed on families.

“School districts throughout the United States had knowledge of the harm that was occurring to Plaintiff-Students because of a denial or unilateral modification of special education and related services,” the lawsuit complaint states. “Such harm was widely reported as well as the added economic, physical and mental burdens which such denials or unilateral modifications were causing to Plaintiff Parents.” 

The lawsuit later added: “[Several school districts requested] parents to execute releases or waivers, essentially giving districts a ‘pass’ for failing to comply with IDEA requirements, [which] is evidence that the districts did not have ‘clean hands’ in failing to provide disabled students with a [free appropriate public education] pursuant to their IEPs. … Thus, Defendants knowingly, willfully and deliberately violated the rights of Plaintiff-Students and Plaintiff-Parents by acting in bad faith.”

Special Education Teachers Visit E-learing Students At Home During COVID-19 Outbreak
Reading School District Special Education teacher Leslie Esterly works with kindergarten student Levi Wilson, 6, outside in the 700 block of North 8th street in Reading Thursday afternoon October 15, 2020. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The Lack of Support Has Affected Development for Some Students

Hollie Harper, who lives in New York City, said her family is doing the best they can right now despite receiving “no help.” Harper is the mother of two kids—a 13-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son with autism. 

“We have remote learning, but it is the bottom. It’s the bottom of what we could be doing,” Harper told COURIER. “It’s the bare minimum of what we’re getting.”

Her children’s school districts were supposed to give them laptops, but Harper said the family never received them. She had to buy her kids their laptops—a hardship many other families have also had to endure amid a nationwide shortage

With an aggressive and abrupt change to their learning routine and environment, students with special needs face an extraordinary arduous battle in not only progressing but even just maintaining their development—which worries Harper. Her primary concern is whether the lack of support will impact her son’s development, since he learns best through in-person lessons and special needs care. Although their school district is still offering some special education services and counseling, they are all administered through Zoom or another video-conferencing software. 

“These kids aren’t forming relationships the way they’re supposed to,” Harper said. “They’re not having friendships the way they’re supposed to. He relies on face-to-face instruction. For a lot of kids—especially if they are on the spectrum, have OCD or any other disability—they need to learn in person.” 

Part of the problem, John Eisenberg, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), told the New York Times, is that school districts just don’t have the funding to adequately help special education students. “They’re facing massive budget deficits due to implementing safety measures for the pandemic, and the unique needs of kids with more significant disabilities—special busing, complex technology—drives the cost up even more,” he said.

House Democrats have tried to address additional school funding in a new coronavirus relief bill, but negotiations have stalled for months.

Looking Ahead to Election Day

As Election Day approaches, some parents—like Harper—are voting in the best interest of their children. “I cannot impress upon anyone who will listen enough how much leadership has completely let us down. They completely let us down,” she said. “Vote. Vote for your future. Vote for your children’s future. Vote for the future you want your children to have. Vote for the children your tax dollars do serve. That’s what you should do.”

Like Mohammed, Noah’s mother, some parents just hope when people make their decision in the voting booth, and in their activism and community engagement, they will think of families with children who need special education, and have compassion for them. 

“I think if people started interacting with more people with special needs and realize that things might be challenging for them, then more people will think, ‘Oh, what about the kids or families with special needs kids? Let’s see what they need,” Mohammad said. “Because our needs are a little bit different, and that’s just the way it is. Our needs are different and are often things that other families take for granted.”

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