The COVID-19 pandemic delayed and disrupted traditional learning for children. However, students in special education who require additional attention are still feeling the impact to a further extent, some parents say.
Jennifer Black, a parent of two elementary-aged children with autism, said she spent several years clashing with the Northshore School District so her students could receive the special education services that were outlined in their individualized education plans (IEPs). When the pandemic shut down schools across the district, she said, the level of services decreased even further.
“You constantly fight to get that service on the IEP,” Black said. “Then once it's on the plan, you must be vigilant to make sure that they follow through and implement the service in class.”
An IEP, a legally written statement, details the amount of time needed in special education services as well as any goals and expectations for the year, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The plan is individualized based on each student’s specific needs.
Black said after going back and forth with administration about carrying out her children’s IEPs, she hired an advocate to make further progress. The advocate helped significantly, she added.
When she saw her son start to regress in skills during Zoom classes, Black decided to move her children to a private school where they could learn in-person. She said both her son and daughter left the district at the start of the last school year.
“I still don’t know where my kids will go to middle school or high school,” Black said. “I can't send them back to this system that I'm going to be in constant fight mode because they're not doing the things that they should be doing for the kids.”
For the last two and a half years, numbers from the state OSPI show a decrease in student enrollment for those in special education.
For the 2020-21 school year, the district averaged about 2,890 students from ages 3 to 21 enrolled in special education services, according to an enrollment report. This total is 263 less students than the previous year’s average.
In March 2020, there were 3,212 total students using special education services in the district, the report said. As of September, most recent numbers show 2,700 students enrolled in special education services at NSD.
“Due to challenges presented by the pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, the [Northshore School District] began providing recovery services to eligible students this summer and will continue to do so for approximately two years,” said Lisa Youngblood Hall, chief communications and experience officer for NSD. “This year, staff members are dedicated to offering full in-person special education services to all identified students. Those in-person services are inclusive of students currently enrolled in the Northshore Virtual Program.”
Some parents of special education students remaining in the district still feel more could be done to improve services. Julie Tsen, parent to a sixth grader in NSD, expressed frustration with the district’s lack of transparency and effort during the pandemic.
Tsen alleges her daughter — who is diagnosed with autism— did not receive adequate therapy time, other than the therapy she received from private doctors, during the 16 months of remote learning.
One teacher asked that Tsen find a social group online or around the neighborhood for her daughter and assigned a work sheet as part of social group skills practice, she said. An easy solution would have been to assign students to a Zoom room together rather than make the parents complete the legwork, she added.
Tsen said she is still unhappy with the provided services now that her daughter is back in a physical classroom.
Her daughter’s IEP indicated that she needed to sit in the front of the classroom in order to process the content better. Tsen later found out that her daughter was moved to the back of the classroom when a different student commented they could not see the board, she said.
“I understand the school has limited funding,” she said. “But even for basic things written in the IEP such as placement of a desk—which I think could be easily adhere to—isn’t even adhered to.”
Despite her concerns, Tsen said, she believes the issues lie among the policies set in place by the Northshore School Board and how they are followed by the administrators.
“I’m not saying that all teachers at Northshore are not doing their job because there’s a lot of good educators,” Tsen said. “It’s just very inconsistent. Each school has different standards.”
Even though Black’s children are no longer in the district, she hopes to advocate for change so one day her students could move back to public school.
One improvement she suggested was disability awareness curriculum for both students and staff members. Last year, Black said, she had to share a picture book with her son’s class so they could better understand why he has meltdowns and behaves a certain way.
“Because there's no curriculum to explain neurodiversity, autism or any disability in Northshore, kids don't understand,” Black said. “Then when students bully other students.”