An order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu regarding services during the pandemic for students with disabilities is drawing praise from special education advocates and concern from school districts.
The emergency order issued Tuesday clarifies the timeline and requirements for districts to meet the needs of students who get special ed services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Meetings on Summer Services Required for all Special Ed Students
The order requires IEP teams – made up of teachers, special ed providers, and a student’s parent - to determine if a special ed student is eligible for summer services through the Extended-School Year (ESY).
Districts typically offer ESY services to students with significant needs who will regress during summer vacation. IEP teams are already required by law to determine ESY eligibility, but the emergency order requires teams to discuss options for both in-person and remote services this summer.
Despite pressure from the state for schools to offer in-person services, most districts are opting to keep ESY remote for the majority of their students.
Some districts – such as Rochester – are seeing an uptick in the number of students who want to participate in ESY, as compared to last year. But in other districts, families have told NHPR that remote learning has been so challenging, they will opt out of remote ESY and hope for in-person services next year.
Special Ed Evaluations to Continue
There are strict timelines for IEP teams to evaluate a students’ IEP needs and determine what services they should receive. Failure to finish an evaluation on time could violate disability laws.
Special ed providers and districts have asked for these timelines to be relaxed during school closure, citing the challenge of gathering the necessary teachers and providers to evaluate students’ needs remotely. But the federal Department of Education has said evaluations of current and potential IEP students cannot be delayed during the pandemic. Sununu's order reiterates this.
Additional Requirements Get Pushback and Praise
The order also requires that IEP teams meet before the end of September to determine what services each IEP student should get next year, to make up for what they lost during remote learning.
Many districts say this timeline is impossible. With most IEP team members off for the summer, meetings will have to happen in September. For large districts with thousands of IEP students, this means thousands more meetings over the course of a month.
Special ed administrators warn they may have to cut back services in September to meet these requirements.
“It raises a lot of questions and concerns about how in the world you teach and provide services, and meet in 30 days,” says Jane Bergeron-Beaulieu, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Special Education Administrators. “And how will you have accurate data yet to determine if there’s been regression? All kids are going to return and be shell-shocked. They need time to settle in and adust.”
But disability rights advocates say the timelines are reasonable, and that schools should be trying harder to provide special ed services.
“Although some students with disabilities have benefited from the remote instruction/remote support model, many have been left behind and have regressed,” wrote Karen Rosenberg, Senior Staff Attorney, Disability Rights Center-NH, in a press release on Tuesday. “I am pleased that Governor Sununu recognizes that one-size-fits-all solutions are not appropriate for students with disabilities and is calling schools to action.”