Risks grow for special ed students as remote classes stretch into new school year

As more schools prepare to start the fall semester online, parents of special needs children attending remote classes are increasingly concerned.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 7 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 2018-19 school year. One third had specific learning disabilities.

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While many special ed students are legally guaranteed services through individualized education plans, a May survey found that nearly 40% of parents whose children have such a plan reported their kids didn’t get any support when schools closed last spring to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Custodian Joel Cruz cleans a desk in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, in July. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

State education officials have taken steps to improve distance learning in the months since the pandemic gripped the nation, but some have doubts about whether or not distance learning could ever work well for students with disabilities.

Many need services that are nearly impossible to provide virtually, such as speech or physical therapy. And those with developmental disabilities or attention deficit disorder may have extreme difficulty following online classes.

While some schools may go the extra mile — applying for waivers so they can offer in-person special education and looking at ways to send therapists to students’ homes — others may not have the resources for such efforts.

As the U.S. grapples with the harshest economic recession since the World War II era because of the pandemic, school districts may soon face their worst-case financial scenario — especially without additional substantial federal relief.

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Schools normally receive nearly half their funding from state coffers, and educators predict slashed district budgets, layoffs and declining enrollment will take a toll in coming weeks.

In June, a World Bank report estimated a loss of $10 trillion dollars in earnings over time for this generation of students.

national class-action lawsuit was brought in July on behalf of millions of special ed students. John Eisenberg, who heads the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, told CBS News on Friday that there will likely be further legal action in the near future.

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“You’re going to see an increase of lawsuits because schools, no matter what cost, probably cannot implement the individual education plans, in some cases, because of the funding shortages,” he said.

Without funding, Eisenberg warned that getting special education students back into the classroom will be a challenge.