In response to disruptions caused by the pandemic last year, New York City officials required every school to offer after-hours special education services to any family who wanted them.
But this will not happen in the next academic year, said representatives of education. Instead, the education department promises to determine what extra instruction or treatment children may need at an “individual level” — decisions that will be left to the teams that set students’ individualized education programs, also known as IEPs.
Additional small group instruction or “related services” such as physical and occupational therapy may be provided after school, on Saturdays, during the school day, or through voucher for students the city determines need extra help, officials said. The city is also expanding a a new program for students with significant sensory challenges, which was popular with some parents. It will launch on 70 sites instead of 10 this fall.
According to city officials, the education department is allocating $100 million for these additional services, up from approximately $200 million last year. Last year’s wellness program was delayed for months after the beginning of the school year. Schools struggled to get staff to work extra hours, and the vast majority of students did not participate, although officials have not yet provided a final tally. Program earned mixed reviews from parents and teachers.
There are many unanswered questions about how this year’s program will work, including which students will be eligible, when parents will be told how they can access additional services, who will be responsible for providing them, and even if they will begin. City officials have not said whether they will provide yellow buses for programs that will be held outside of the regular school day, the main a barrier to participation last academic year.
“For the outside world, it’s last minute,” said Maggie Moroff, a special education policy expert at the nonprofit Advocates for Children. “It’s hard for me to imagine if it hasn’t been communicated to the schools yet how it’s going to be successful.”
Students with disabilities have a legal right to “compensatory services” if their school does not provide all the specialized instruction or treatment included in their IEP. And a a significant share students with disabilities missed out on special education instruction or therapy that was difficult or impossible to provide during distance learning or because staff were overwhelmed.
But successfully defending compensation services can take time and require legal assistance. If the county doesn’t agree to provide these extra services, families can go through an administrative lawsuit to force the city to provide them, though the process is complicated and faces extreme backlogs that often stretch for months. Advocates for the children sued in an attempt to force the city to create a more streamlined process, though that lawsuit was not successful until now.
The city’s promise to assess whether students with disabilities need these additional compensatory services could indicate that it will be easier to get them without going through that cumbersome process, though it’s unclear how generous the city will recommend the extra support.
“This administration is committed to repairing any pandemic-related learning losses for our most vulnerable students and expanding access to critical programs that meet unique individual needs,” Nicole Brownstein, a spokeswoman for the education department, wrote in an email. She added that additional services will be available on Saturdays at multiple sites in each district.
Even if the city instructs schools to provide additional compensatory services, Moroff noted that many students do not have an IEP meeting scheduled until the spring, raising questions about how soon students will be able to access additional help.
“If a student’s last IEP happened last April, they are not scheduled for an IEP meeting until the following April,” she said. “Of course the family can ask, but that puts the burden on the family.”
Bronx mom Damaris Rodriguez said she is anxious to find out if her 12-year-old son Maliek, who is on the autism spectrum, may be eligible for services and when they might be provided.
Malik missed some speech and occupational therapy classes during the pandemic because they conflicted with distance learning. She said the extra services can help him self-regulate when he feels upset, work on his reading comprehension skills and even learn to share his feelings with peers and teachers.
“Maliek has faced many different challenges emotionally,” Rugriguez said, “whereas before the pandemic he was able to speak or open up.”
But she’s also wary of the department’s special education recovery programs. Last year, she pulled Malik out of a recovery program after a month because he wasn’t getting the therapy she thought he needed. Figuring out transportation without the yellow bus was difficult.
Rodriguez said she’s disappointed the city hasn’t told parents more clearly what extra services to expect this school year and when they’ll be provided, as it sets up extra activities like basketball that could conflict with Saturday special education programs.
“Will you have to tell your son that he can’t play basketball because it falls on a Saturday?” – Rodriguez was surprised. “When will you tell your parents?”
Alex Zimmerman is a Chalkbeat New York reporter covering New York City Public Schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.