March 15, 2020 is a date that many will remember for the rest of their lives. That is the day Governor Sununu issued Emergency Order #1, "Temporary remote instruction and support for public K-12 school districts."
Districts quickly put in place plans to create continuity of learning for students who would now find themselves learning from home. This was a pivot that we should all be proud of. It was not perfect, but it was the appropriate response to the ambiguous circumstances that we found ourselves in at the time. For many students with Individual Education Programs (IEP), this ambiguity was particularly unsettling. Those programs laid out detailed supports and services that would allow these children to access their education. Without those supports and services, even accessing education becomes impossible for some.
Schools worked with these students and families to find creative ways to provide those services. Of course, some districts were more creative and effective than others, but because most of these services were provided remotely via phone or computer, parents found themselves playing many roles.
From March 16 until the end of the school year, many parents filled the role of teacher to their children now at home. For parents of students with IEPs, in addition to teacher, they may also have played the role of physical, speech, and occupational therapist, behavioral counselor, and reading interventionist, among others.
As the new school year approaches, many school districts are adopting plans that include in-person, hybrid and remote instructional models. These plans reflect the varying circumstances relative to COVID-19 across the state and how individual communities want to respond to those circumstances. We appreciate the challenges associated with efforts to develop school reopening plans that meet each community's individual concerns, but want to ensure that districts do not fail to individualize those plans for students with IEPs. Many of these students — some of our most vulnerable in the state — made little or no progress and, in some cases regressed, during the initial remote instruction and support period this spring. That cannot continue.
Schools must comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state R.S.A. 186-C — the civil rights laws which require them to offer a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment to every child with a disability. School districts meet this obligation by developing and implementing a student's IEP, with measurable goals, objectives, services and supports that the child needs to learn. In accordance with federal and state law, while school districts are responsible for offering each student an appropriate education, all decisions about a child's educational plan must be made by the IEP team, which includes the student's parents.
While some schools may have adopted a hybrid or remote instructional model for the fall start, many of our students with IEPs require in-person supports and services that simply cannot be provided remotely. There are no prohibitions on our districts to providing these in-person services. Strong and effective mitigation strategies have been developed so that in-person supports and services can be safely provided. We can and we must support our vulnerable students.
Some school districts are trying to meet the needs of students with disabilities as outlined in their IEPs but many others are delaying the provision of necessary services or offering only one-size-fits-all education programs. A coalition of educational associations went so far as to suggest, "the best time to consider compensatory education [e.g., supports and services] is after the pandemic subsides." We could not disagree more.
These responses are neither appropriate nor legal when planning for the educational programming of students with disabilities. Even if school districts have opted to provide only remote instruction for the lion's share of their students, they must take all necessary steps, including providing in-person instruction or services, for children with disabilities who are not able to access the services required in their IEPs remotely or benefit from remote schooling.
Failure to provide special education services will have long term implications for New Hampshire and on the lives of students. In the United States in 2018, the poverty rate was 26.9 percent for individuals with disabilities and 12.2 percent for people without disabilities. Only 43.8 percent of people with disabilities were employed in New Hampshire, compared to approximately 82.6 percent of their peers without disabilities. While robust educational services may not fully address these inequalities, they provide a foundation of success for people with disabilities.
New Hampshire's children, including children with disabilities, are a precious resource. The adults in their lives, including school district administrators, teachers and service providers have a responsibility to plan for and to provide the education programs and services these children need to become fully participating and contributing members of our communities.
We must act now. It is legally required and it is the right thing to do.
Stephanie Patrick is executive director of the Disability Rights Center - New Hampshire. Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.