By: Karla Phillips-Krivickas

My daughter is returning to school next week after five months at home, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m glad Arizona, where we live, has given parents a choice in how to educate their children as we emerge from the COVID crisis, and I support parents who are exploring online and homeschool options to keep their children safe and on track with learning until they are comfortable going back on campus. But the truth is that the choices facing parents of students with disabilities transcend school choice. We know that our children need the intellectual, therapeutic programs and skilled teachers that only can be delivered in person and at school, but we have no idea how that will work.

As I ironed out the details for my daughter’s transition to middle school with her special education teacher, I was overcome with appreciation for the time, attention, and detail the school has invested in preparing to support my daughter. She has Down Syndrome and has been fortunate to attend a school that prioritizes inclusion and has set high expectations for her. Even so, this will be a school year unlike any other.

Parents of children with disabilities are particularly challenged by school re-openings. They need their schools, but many will find their children returning to understaffed, underequipped and underfunded programs, a problem only exacerbated by COVID. But their challenges don’t end there. Much of the state’s special education model is outdated and in desperate need of a revamp. Additional resources alone won’t solve the problem. As our country contemplates this new school year, it should also open the door for schools to reimagine education for students with disabilities. 

RE-OPEN SCHOOLS TO MEET THE NEEDS OF ALL STUDENTS

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman have allocated initial CARES Act funds to support school reopening plans, compensatory education for students with disabilities, and student safety.  Encouragingly, they also have dedicated monies to support innovation. Likely, many of your state’s leaders have made similar decisions. As the state’s guidance continues to evolve and as boards and departments begin to review school re-opening plans, both our states and our schools should consider the following ways to address the needs of special education students:

  1. Make special education a focal point in state and school reopening plans. Educators have long acknowledged that the strategies that work for special education students are best practices for all children. Now is the time to act on this knowledge to benefit all students.
  2. Seek feedback from and provide support to families of students with disabilities. Our students need the experienced and dedicated professionals a school provides along with therapeutic support to boost learning and achievement. However, the reality is that remote learning for students with disabilities is, in fact, parent-facilitated learning. They need to be engaged and supported along every step.  
  3. Prioritize inclusion. Schools must guard against increased isolation or segregation of students with disabilities in reopening plans. Inclusion in a digital environment certainly presents challenges, yet it is more important now than ever.
  4. Address learning loss. The state’s digital learning plans require details on this year’s benchmark assessments and instructional methods, but schools also need to develop plans to accelerate learning and prevent achievement gaps from widening.
  5. Balance local control with state support. Local decision-making has never been more important, but the state plays a crucial role in monitoring and evaluating school plan implementation. This monitoring should, clearly, not be for the purpose of compliance or enforcement but to identify trends and areas needing increased support and technical assistance.

SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY TO REINVENT LEARNING

It has become glaringly obvious that students with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by the shutdown of our nation’s schools due to the COVID pandemic. Beyond the dilemma of ensuring device access and connectivity, schools are struggling to convert their special education programs and related services to an online environment.

This unprecedented challenge could present an unprecedented opportunity for Arizona to reboot its approach to special education. Rather than replicating existing models online and contemplating modifications and accommodations later, this is the time to flip the paradigm. Now is the time to empower school leaders to reinvent the design and delivery of special education services and supports, knowing that it will benefit all students.

Each state has the ability to distribute new sources of federal funding and provide guidance and flexibility to schools as they consider the best way to put students at the center of learning. As deliberations regarding additional federal funding continue, states can respectfully request that Congress preserves the flexibility for governors to prioritize their state’s needs and allocate funds to build a new comprehensive plan and unique, game-changing initiatives for students with disabilities.

As we rethink our approach to this upcoming school year, let’s start with our students with disabilities. Let’s make sure they are at the center of every school’s re-opening and let’s use those plans as the foundation for a new statewide approach to special education.

With additional federal relief funds, we could create something big, bold, and transformational that will outlast this pandemic and change the trajectory for generations of students.

And that is exactly what our kids deserve. 

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Karla Phillips-Krivickas is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy for KnowledgeWorks. She has over 20 years of national and state education policy experience in legislative, executive and non-profit leadership roles. As a mother of a child with a disability, Karla is channeling her experience and opportunities to passionately advocate for students with disabilities.

This article was originally published on Chamber Business News

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