Parents say the Lawrence school district is failing to meet special education needs during remote learning
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
As the Lawrence school district on Friday was finishing up its second week of fully remote learning for the 2020-21 school year, Kendra Pittman could be seen in her home hustling between her two elementary-aged children, trying to make sure they were both doing their school assignments and logging into class on their school-issued devices.
While Pittman finds it challenging to just keep an eye on her children’s class progress, she said it’s even harder when she’s trying to help her daughter who is struggling because she has special needs.
Pittman is not only serving as a caretaker for her children during the school day, but is also serving as a makeshift paraeducator to make sure her daughter, a fifth grader at New York Elementary School who has dyslexia, doesn’t fall behind in her math and English work. Under normal circumstances, her daughter would work with a special education teacher during those lessons, but that has not been happening during remote learning, Pittman said.
“I’m staying at home with my kids this year to make this work,” Pittman said. “If I hadn’t been able to stay at home with her, this would have been a complete and utter disaster.”
And Pittman is not alone. Several Lawrence parents of students with special needs recently told the Journal-World that remote learning has been an extremely difficult time for their children and themselves, and they fear their kids are at risk of falling far behind in their education, if they haven’t already.
Pittman, who also serves on the district’s special education parent advisory committee, said “an enormous” number of parents feel that way. She said many parents of special needs students in Lawrence have recently started a Facebook group to discuss their issues and concerns.
District officials, though, said special education teams are working to ensure student needs are met during remote learning. Kevin Harrell, executive director of student services and special education, said the district was working with parents to provide those services, which he said the district has improved since the spring, when the state shut down schools because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Our plans for this fall are much better than the continuous learning developed in the spring when schools were closed,” Harrell said in an email. “That’s because we have been able to listen to student, parent, and teacher feedback; review additional state guidance, and make adjustments. We also know that we will continue to improve.”
But the issues in special education caused by the pandemic could and should have been avoided, Pittman said. She believes the school district wasn’t prepared to fully provide educational support to special education students, even when the district had a full summer to prepare for continuing school remotely this fall.
Falling through the cracks
According to federal law, public school districts are required to serve special education students, which often includes providing an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. IEPs are programs the parents of the child with special needs works out with the district to ensure they do not fall through the cracks.
But during remote learning, the parents said that’s exactly what is happening. They say their children either aren’t receiving their federally mandated IEP or the resources to provide the IEP are not available.
Alexandria Cain, a mother of a second grader at Sunflower Elementary, said she was frustrated and exhausted by the district’s remote learning methods, specifically because her son’s IEP was not being met.
She said her son’s IEP requires a paraeducator, a nonlicensed education assistant employed by the district, to work with her son one on one throughout the school day. But ever since remote learning began in March, her son hasn’t had a para helping him, she said.
To make sure her son continues to learn, Cain has had to serve as her son’s para herself. That’s on top of her personal workday, which has stretched her thin. She also doesn’t have any educational training and doesn’t know how to properly provide the educational services her son requires.
“Being online all day is extremely bad. That may work for some people, but for my specialized IEP student, it doesn’t work,” Cain said, noting her son has an IEP because he can become severely angry without constant help. “It causes him emotional distress.”
Issues with special education during the pandemic appear to be a nationwide problem. According to a New York Times report, a survey released at the end of May by the advocacy group ParentsTogether, found that 40% of students in special education hadn’t received any education support. Additionally, only 20% received all the services they were entitled to, while a third were doing little to no remote learning, according to the report.
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
While the school district is currently employing paras to provide students with services, Pittman said she doesn’t think there are enough paras to support all of the children who need them.
Harrell said paras were being used during remote learning and were being provided “when available.”
“School teams will continue to work and make changes as needed as the school year progresses,” Harrell said. “The way in which needs are met may change daily if needed as we adjust to how remote learning affects individual students.”
Hannah Allison, chair of the recently recognized paraeducators union, told the Journal-World the paras were currently working with students. She said they were doing their best to provide the services they would normally provide in person through remote avenues.
But how the paras are used is up to the district. She said the use of paras across the district was “uneven.”
“Some people are doing the kind of work they’ve done in the past, but remotely,” Allison said. “But it is uneven in that some of us are essentially doing the work we were doing, while others are being told their services are not needed full time. It’s inconsistent, I would say.”
According to employee data the district provided to the Journal-World, there are also fewer paraeducators in the district this year than in the past. During the 2019-2020 school year, the district employed 313 special education paras. This fall, the district is employing 259, a drop of 54 paraeducators focused on special education.
David Cunningham, executive director of human resources, said decreases in the number of paraeducators were not unusual, but he noted the district has not posted job listings for all of its openings this fall because it wanted to evaluate the district’s needs for the remote learning period first. He said the district may soon begin posting the job openings and fill those deemed necessary.
“Special Education is working with Human Resources and our building administrators to ensure they have the resources to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities,” Cunningham said in an email. “Meeting the special education needs of students may look different in a remote setting. How those needs are addressed are determined at the building level by the IEP team, which includes both the parent and the building administrator.”
But when paras are available, it has still been difficult for the students to meet with them one on one, Pittman said. The remote learning software the district uses, Webex, did not allow for students to move from their general classroom discussions to a private one-on-one virtual classroom with their para until this past week.
Pittman also thinks students with special needs should be working with their paras in person. She acknowledges it’s a health risk to have all students in classroom buildings during the pandemic, but she thinks the district should have the capability to allow the special education students to be safely in person with their paras during this period.
The district is in the process of setting up student support sites at elementary schools throughout the district. The purpose of the sites is to provide in-person support to students during the fully remote period. The proposed 11 sites would allow a maximum of 15 students per site.
Deputy Superintendent Anna Stubblefield said in an email to the Journal-World on Friday that three of the sites would launch on Wednesday and would be staffed with classified staff and substitute teachers, but not with paraeducators.
“They are not trained special education educators,” Stubblefield said of the staff that would be available. “The district will continue to follow its established process to determine how to best meet the needs of students with IEPs.”
Pittman wonders why all of those issues weren’t sorted out at the beginning of the school year. Without them, special needs students have been learning through a hectic environment for two weeks.
“On Day 1, our children are supposed to have services,” Pittman said.
Taking education into their own hands
As they believe the district is failing their children, some of the parents said they may have no choice but to change the way their children are educated.
Danae Johnson, a parent of a first grader with special needs, said the remote learning period in the spring was “pretty brutal” for her family. She said she realized the fall semester would not be any better, so she decided to pull her children out of the Lawrence school district.
“Online learning is most certainly not ideal for kids with special learning requirements,” Johnson said in an email. “It simply just does not work.”
Now her children are being homeschooled, a luxury that, Johnson noted, is not available to most parents of students with special needs.
To make sure her son, who would have attended Pinckney Elementary, receives the care he requires, Johnson said her parents would teach using an online learning platform. She said the program works, because her mother will be providing in-person one-on-one education support that a para would provide under normal circumstances.
“There is really no way my son will sit online for the six hours (or so) per day the school district is requiring,” Johnson said in the email. “The screens and online engagement do not hold his attention at all. He simply requires more than what that style of teaching can support.”
Johnson has previously asked the district to do more on special education generally. In the fall of 2019, she called on the district to raise the pay for paraeducators because she thought their low wages were making it difficult to retain them in schools.
She believed a year ago, when the district employed more paras, that there were not enough and that was contributing to student IEPs not being met.
Cain and Pittman said they too were considering changing their child’s school if their needs are not met. Cain said she was considering moving to Eudora or Baldwin City, two nearby school districts that started their school years with forms of in-person learning. Pittman, on the other hand, said she’s considering moving her daughter to a private school in Kansas City that would specialize in helping her.
Another possible solution
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
Other than moving schools, another option is available to parents to ensure their children receive their special education services, Pittman said. Because the services are required by law, that means the parents could file a lawsuit against the school district to ask a court to force the district to act or be subject to penalties.
Pittman said the existence of the special education parent Facebook group meant many parents were already in contact with one another — and filing a lawsuit together was not out of the question. But Pittman said she hoped it didn’t come to that. She said parents weren’t out to hurt the school district; they just want their children to be educated as the law requires, she said.
To address the issues, she said, the parents are more than willing to work with the district to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, but the district has to reciprocate — and communicate more — with the parents, who currently don’t believe the district is taking their concerns seriously enough.
“We just want our kids’ needs met,” Pittman said. “We can come up with some really creative solutions, but the parents have been shut out,” she added.
When asked how the district officials felt about Pittman’s concerns about special education and parents being “shut out,” Harrell said he thought that the district was working hard with parents to solve the issues.
“We’re sorry to hear of that perspective,” Harrell said in an email. “We continue to partner with school families, celebrate successes, support students and building IEP teams, listen to concerns, and problem-solve solutions.
“Our goal is to meet the individual needs of our students with disabilities,” he added.
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