Denver particular schooling evaluations plummet throughout pandemic
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Maria Barraza’s 8-year-old son spent half of first grade and all of second grade online because of the pandemic. When he entered third grade this fall, Barraza was concerned. Her son’s writing and spelling were “far below average,” according to Barraza, and he couldn’t yet read on his own, which meant he struggled with math too because he couldn’t understand word problems.
She took him to an expensive private exam in September. The results of the two-day test confirmed what she suspected: he needed extra help at school. But Barraza said her repeated requests that her son receive special education services went unheeded for months.
“I’m confused as to what the battle is,” Barraza said. “What is the problem?”
Barraza is not alone. In Denver public schools, the number of initial assessments for special education for students ages 3 to 21 fell about 35% from the 2018-19 school year to the pandemic-hit 2019-20 school year and remained low the following year.
Nationally, initial ratings fell about 16% and have not recovered either. That means 4,200 fewer children were screened across Colorado in 2019-20 than in 2018-19.
If children are not assessed in a timely manner and begin to seek services, they can fall even further behind, increasing the time to catch up and affecting their self-esteem.
It’s not just a Colorado problem. Districts across the country, including Chicago and New York City, have seen a decrease in the number of students referred or evaluated for special education services, raising concerns that children with disabilities are not receiving the assistance they need.
District administrators and special education teachers cite a variety of challenges: staff shortages, more paperwork, new requirements related to distance learning, and a reluctance to classify children as learning disabled when they may be suffering the effects of distance learning and pandemic-related family trauma instead.
“We don’t want to leave any child behind when they need it [special education] services,” said Julie Rottier-Lukens, director of special education at Denver Public Schools’ 90,000 students. “And yet, based on what we’re looking at right now, let’s not make assumptions and assume that kids have been through a lot.”
Parents say they’re okay with the challenges, but their kids shouldn’t pay the price.
Elisa Aucancela, executive director of El Grupo Vida, a local network of Latino parents of children with disabilities, said she feels schools are sometimes using the pandemic as an excuse to delay evaluating children who need more immediate help .
It’s especially frustrating when it happens to Spanish-speaking families whose children already have a diagnosis from a doctor, Aucancela said.
“If it’s a disability, it’s a disability,” she said.
Marta Edith Flamenco’s 4-year-old daughter has Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a congenital brain disorder that affects the cerebellum and can cause developmental delays. Her daughter has been receiving therapy from the county since birth to help her eat, walk and speak.
In 2020, when the girl was three, Aucancela attempted to refer the family to a school district special education exam so she could enroll in a public preschool. But citing a long waiting list, the district encouraged the family to enroll their daughter in preschool first and then take the assessment, Aucancela said. Flamenco did — but within two weeks, she said she was faced with a $550 preschool bill that her family couldn’t pay because her husband was unemployed.
“The school told us we had to pay,” says Flamenco, who only speaks Spanish. “We stopped taking them because it was going to be too much.”
Denver charges preschool fees on a tiered basis, but students who qualify for special education attend for free. As it stands now, Flamenco’s daughter has been out of school for more than a year. She is crying because she wants to go back, her mother said.
“She used to be so happy and ready, and she shared what she saw, what she learned, and she came [home] and she was ready to rest,” Flamenco said. “And now she’s so energetic. She’s just here and really wants to go to school. She throws tantrums about it.”
Aucancela recently filed another special education referral, and Flamenco said her daughter now has an appointment in March for a check-up. Aucancela is pleased, but she said it was worrying that it had taken so long for the family to get what they needed.
“The pandemic is here,” Aucancela said. But, she added, “we can’t use the pandemic as an excuse and just wait and wait and wait until the kid is three years behind.”
Meanwhile, special education teachers are “overworked and overworked and overwhelmed,” said Hillary Daniels, a special education teacher at Hallett Academy Elementary School in Denver.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020 and schools were closed, special education evaluations ground to a halt. The teachers had no real guidance on how to teach online, let alone administer the kind of tests needed to identify a student for special education. The district may consider assessments from outside providers, like the one Barraza received for her son, but they are not required to accept them in the decision-making process, a district spokesman said.
Assessments that the district would have conducted in the spring of 2020 have been pushed back to the fall — and although officials provided guidelines for conducting them virtually, it hasn’t been easy, said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and a former special education teacher.
“It’s really hard to say through a computer screen, ‘Is this a learning disability? Is this an emotional handicap? Or is that frustration because they can’t hear the teacher?” he said.
The environment also presented us with challenges. Before the pandemic, when Daniels assessed a student, she and the student were in a quiet room at school. At home, she said, a student might find themselves in a virtual assessment while their sister yells in the background or honks their horns outside.
This meant that even if teachers completed a virtual assessment, it might not have been accurate. Daniels recalls one student who, when the school buildings reopened and he returned to in-person study, failed to comply with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on his virtual assessment. The goals listed in his IEP focused on paying attention, staying on task and improving his language. By the time he got to school, his teachers noticed that he still couldn’t hold a pencil – an important skill that was difficult to assess online and had been missed completely.
“This child comes to us and the needs that they show us personally are very different than the paper that we were given that tried to explain this child,” Daniels said.
In this case, the student needed to be reassessed for motor skills and cognitive concerns, Daniels said. Such unexpected reassessments, when added to regular initial assessments, scheduled reassessments, and annual IEP reviews, put special education teachers at a disadvantage.
The data reflects that. Federal law requires districts to complete evaluations within 60 days of approval from a student’s parents. While Denver public schools completed 93% of initial assessments for students ages 3 to 21 within 60 days prior to the 2018-19 pandemic, that percentage dropped to 87% in 2019-20 and 84% in 2019-20, according to state data last school year.
In addition to the assessments, the district asked special education teachers to write contingency plans outlining how each child would receive their services during virtual learning. Later, the district asked educators to verify that the services each student had received virtually were appropriate or that the student had qualified for tutoring because they missed so much.
Rottier-Lukens, Denver’s director of special education, said the decisions were based on justice. For example, instead of waiting for savvy parents to ask about makeup services, officially known as compensation services, the district proactively reviews each child’s case. However, she acknowledged that this takes time and has contributed to the feeling among special education teachers and specialists of being “pulled right, left and centre”.
Daniels knows that feeling well. While some special education teachers or specialists may be forced to spend less time working directly with students to complete what Gould called a “tsunami of paperwork,” Daniels ended up taking her paperwork home.
“My work-life balance doesn’t exist,” she said.
Staff shortages have also contributed to the problem. Before the pandemic, districts found it difficult to fill special education positions, but officials said it’s even harder now. Denver Public Schools had 19 vacant special education positions and 118 vacant paraprofessional special education positions as of January.
Rottier-Lukens said she’s also seeing more mid-year layoffs than ever before.
“Typically, most teachers at least fulfill their contract,” she said. “They’re going to make it through the end of the year somehow. I see a lot more people just quitting in October.”
Because of all of these factors, some advocates said they are taking it lightly when it comes to sounding the alarm about late special education assessments. When asked about the potential impact of the situation on the students, Gould, the union leader, returned to staffing.
“The effect is that the students may or may not have a teacher,” he said. “Everyone is at a breaking point now. I’m worried that people will choose a different profession than this.”
Barraza, who campaigned for months to get her 8-year-old son a grade, doesn’t blame the teachers, who she says are expected to do too much. She experienced the consequences firsthand: her son’s third-grade teacher quit last semester, citing mental anguish.
But Barraza’s compassion doesn’t mean she’s less concerned about getting her son the services and housing he needs to succeed in school. She said she knew they existed.
“That’s all I want,” she said.