Op-Ed: Congress Takes A Step To Help Special Needs Students

The COVID-19 pandemic has created severe school funding shortages throughout the country, and unfortunately the shortages impact students with disabilities the hardest.

Thanks to staunch support from several U.S. senators, including Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Murphy, and lawmakers from Maryland and New Hampshire, the Senate, earlier this month, passed a plan that includes funding to support programs that help students with disabilities.

We are hopeful. This is a positive step. Thus far, Congress has not provided resources to give all students a quality education, and many have fallen behind.

The proposal, part of the umbrella American Rescue Plan, includes billions of dollars for kindergarten to 12th grade, as well as $2.5 billion in state grants for K-12 students with disabilities.

Murphy, along with other U.S. Senators from Maryland and New Hampshire, pushed for funds for students with disabilities and this recent package is the first COVID-19 package containing the funding.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the funds can be used for:

“Implementing strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic . . .(and)
Funding crucial summer, afterschool, and other extended learning and enrichment programs.”
The education department said that the rescue plan will help ensure “schools have the resources they need to address the academic, social and emotional needs of students, particularly for underserved students and those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities” among others.

For years, education advocates have complained that Congress passes laws calling for additional services for special education students. Yet, they fail to provide the money to pay for these services. The same often is true for State of Connecticut mandates.

Special education advocates know that a structured routine is one of the best ways to help students. And with the remote learning, caused by the pandemic, routines have been disrupted. With parents bearing more of a burden for keeping a routine, there is more room for error. While parents, typically, are doing their best, and trying different ways that work, it’s a huge burden that has fallen on them.

The fact that millions of students had to take part in distance learning was challenging for all. But it has been much more challenging for those with disabilities and special needs.

Another issue parents face is how to access the special education services their children are entitled to receive. These students have Individual Education Plans (IEP) that detail the services the school will provide. These Plans, which help students manage one or more disability, are contracts the schools have with parents.

With in-person learning suspended and even in-person meetings of parents and educators, creating and implementing the IEPs is even more challenging than in normal circumstances.

The IEPs contain a detailed explanation of what is required to be provided to the student. For example, the IEP discusses the extent to which a child will take part in class with regular students. It will detail how long these services will be provided and will discuss the language and communication needs of the individual child. The IEP includes strategies for behavioral management, particularly if the student’s behavior, from time to time, interferes with the learning of others in the classroom.

Parents need to vigilant in pushing educators to develop, modify and implement the IEPs, especially during these challenging times.

We hope this federal legislation will help those at-risk students catch up, especially now that COVID has made life for special education students even more problematic. As well, we hope that the state legislature will see the Congressional action as a model for enacting new measures to properly fund its multiple mandates and truly provide the best educational experiences possible for all students.

Jeffrey L. Forte, Esq. is a special education attorney and certified child advocate. His firm, Forte Law Group, represents families that have a child with a disability and helps parents protect the educational rights of all children. www.fortelawgroup.com