Two Chicago families, two experiences: Stories spotlight challenges ahead for special education

This article was published on August 10, 2020, in Chalkbeat by Samatha Smylie.


As part of a summer program for children with disabilities, Nicole Abreu’s daughter, a rising third-grader at Jahn Elementary on Chicago’s North Side, has been able to receive speech-language therapy, services for the visually impaired, and help with her assignments from both a teacher and a paraprofessional.


“The teacher is making the best of a very difficult situation because she has my daughter, who is a rising third-grader, and also like some middle school boys. She has been working super hard to try and accommodate all of us along with the paraprofessional,” said Abreu.

Her experience hasn’t been perfect. She hasn’t received the occupational or physical therapy guaranteed by her individualized education program. While she has had some access to a social worker through assignments, they haven’t been able to have teletherapy sessions. But Abreu has had a far better time getting the necessary special education services for her daughter than Anna, a mother of a rising fourth-grader with dyslexia.


Anna, who asked Chalkbeat to withhold her last name and her son’s name due to privacy concerns, has been acting as both a mother and a special education classroom assistant to get her son to focus on his schoolwork. Her son is currently enrolled at a therapeutic day school in LaGrange, in a southwest suburb of Chicago, through Chicago Public Schools.

“His teachers are just expecting everything to be done on zoom. To be quite honest that doesn’t work for my son. It’s overwhelming to him and he doesn’t learn very well,” Anna said.

Looking ahead at the fall, she needs more guidance from his teachers to assist him with his schoolwork and wants more collaboration between her and the teacher to create a learning environment at home that’s similar to school.


Students with special needs have been particularly hard hit by school closures in Chicago during the coronavirus pandemic. Vital services, many of which can only be done in person, disappeared for weeks when campuses shuttered in March — and some students weren’t able to access them for the rest of the school year. Some parents were hoping that the extended school year would give their child a chance to make up for lost time. But, they found programming riddled with the same issues as the spring: limited access to clinicians, difficulty navigating online applications, and not enough time with teachers and classroom assistants.


The experiences of these two families — which show how difficult it has been for schools to serve children with special needs outside of the school building and just how wildly such services can vary by individual school — spotlight the challenges ahead as Chicago starts the year remotely.


Chicago Public Schools said in a statement that the district prioritized students who displayed the need for summer programming, and the goal of the program was to prevent “significant skill loss” caused by the interruption of services.


Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the extended school year had problems, Mary Fahey Hughes, special education parent liaison at Raise Your Hand Illinois, said.


“During non-COVID times, there’s not a continuum of staff to serve kids. There’s a huge learning curve for educators getting to know the kids and their IEPs. Two to three weeks into it before any learning starts with a new teacher, and then it’s two or three weeks later and it’s over,” Fahey Hughes said. She said that this issue has worsened with remote learning.


Chris Yun, education policy analyst at Access Living, a disability rights advocacy organization, said that parents who were approved for summer programming were hoping to regain some learning lost over the spring.


“During the spring, people was like, ‘This is an emergency situation, we just need to endure this. Then in the summertime, maybe we can come back, restart and then we can recoup whatever is lost.’ Because of the COVID situation, summer just became the same thing as a spring situation,” Yun said.


With spring and summer done, advocates and parents are wondering what Chicago will do to improve special education services for the fall. In its tentative plan, the district had said that it would bring back some students in special education for full-time, in-person schooling, while others would select either all-remote or a hybrid model. But on Wednesday, the district announced that it will start the school year all-remote because of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in the city.


Schools chief Janice Jackson pledged that the district will pay attention to the needs of special education students by releasing detailed guidance for one-on-one support and small group instruction remotely.


Even before Chicago made the announcement, Anna and Abreu were going to choose remote learning for their children due to health concerns. However, they are worried about how it will go in the fall.


“I’m worried that he’s not going to get his reading instruction because he struggled to read. He struggled with social emotional growth and him not getting the socializing with other kids and that’s the hard part,” Anna said.


Abreu hopes that the fall is more like the summer for her daughter. “There was more live instruction during the summer and she’s getting the actual minutes in her individualized education plan and not a small proportion of them,” she said.


In the fall, special education advocates want school districts throughout the nation to take steps to ensure that students have access to teachers, classroom assistants, and clinicians so that students can receive additional services.


Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Disabilities based in Washington, D.C., said that school districts around the country will need to develop a robust infrastructure and capacity to provide special education services to students remotely.


“If you haven’t yet found a way to deliver speech therapy to your students virtually, you’ve got to find a platform that works for you and make sure you’ve got the personnel available to do that one-on-one with students or in small groups,” she said.


In addition to providing services, Yun, at Access Living, said that schools need more staff to help students with their work online, IEP teams must assess loss of learning over the spring and summer, and work with families to create new goals for students.


For Yun this isn’t just about students with disabilities achieving academically — special education services can give them critical life skills.


“For every child in the US at this moment, we have lots of concern about their learning. But, for one particular group of students, the difficulty is much harder because of the pandemic, lack of adequate support and bureaucracy, ” she said.

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