Briefly Stated: September 1, 2021

September 01, 2021 8 min read
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Feds Urge Schools to Identify Students With Disabilities, Despite Pandemic

Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools must meet their obligations under federal law to identify and serve children with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education said in new guidance last week.

“Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the mode of instruction,” children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, the department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services wrote in an Aug. 24 letter to state and local educational administrators.

The attached guidance document focused on Child Find, a portion of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that outlines states’ obligations to identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities, even those younger than school age and those who do not attend public schools.

Among other things, the guidance notes that schools may use federal COVID-19 relief funding provided through the American Rescue Plan to help address a backlog of evaluations. And schools may need to make extra efforts to locate and identify children who didn’t enroll in the 2020-21 school year to ensure their needs are addressed.

In addition, children with “long COVID” or prolonged post-COVID side effects “such as fatigue, mood changes, or difficulty concentrating” may qualify for special education services if those conditions adversely affect their ability to participate and learn, the guidance says.

The document is the first in a series of Q&A documents the Education Department plans to release on special education in the coming weeks, Katherine Neas, acting assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitative services, wrote. Other documents will cover topics like evaluation, reevaluation, meeting timelines, and providing services, she said.

Advocates say the pandemic has been particularly challenging for students with disabilities as schools strained to provide appropriate services and accommodations during remote learning. They’ve also cautioned that interruptions to in-person learning have given educators fewer opportunities to recognize potential learning disabilities and have led to a backlog in special education evaluations in some districts.

U.S. Indigenous Boarding School Review Prompts Calls for Trauma Support

Some members of Congress want to ensure that protections are put in place to address ongoing trauma as more information comes to light about the troubled history of Indigenous boarding schools in the United States.

A group of 21 Democratic lawmakers representing states stretching from the Southwest to the East Coast sent a letter earlier this month to the Indian Health Service. They are asking that the federal agency make available culturally appropriate support services such as a hotline and other mental and spiritual programs as the federal government embarks on its investigation into the schools.

Agency officials said in a statement they are reviewing the request and discussing what steps to take next.

Advocacy groups say additional trauma resources for Indigenous communities are more urgent than ever.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has acknowledged the process will be painful. She and many others have talked about the federal government’s attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language, and culture through its boarding school policies and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

Part of the Interior Department’s work includes identifying potential burial sites at former schools and documenting the names and tribal affiliations of the students buried there. The agency has promised to work with tribes on how best to protect the sites and respect families and communities.

The Indian Health Service noted that Native American youth are 2.5 times more likely to experience trauma compared to their non-Native peers and that the agency aims to provide a “safe, supportive, welcoming, non-punitive, respectful, healthy and healing environment for all patients and staff.”

Beginning in the early 1800s, the effort to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society by removing them from their homes and shipping them off to boarding schools spanned more than a century. According to the boarding school healing coalition, hundreds of thousands of Native American children passed through boarding schools in the U.S. between 1869 and the 1960s.

While research and family accounts confirm there were children who never made it home, a full accounting of deaths at the schools has never been done.

Parents and Teachers Want to See Big Changes Come Out of the Pandemic, Survey Says

As many students return to in-person instruction after staying at home for much of the 2020-21 academic year, parents and teachers alike are hoping school itself will look different, with more opportunity for smaller classes and personalized attention for students.

What’s more, the majority of both parents and teachers are eager for kids to go back to in-person schooling full-time this fall, according to a survey by a civil rights organization and an education nonprofit.

Both groups also understand it’s not going to be easy. Ninety percent of teachers and 61 percent of parents surveyed in July are expecting big challenges as children head back to in-person classrooms. Academic development was a top concern, with 73 percent of respondents listing it as number one in the survey by Understood, a nonprofit that works on behalf of children with learning and thinking differences, and UnidosUS, an organization that works on behalf of Latinos.

But parents and teachers are nearly as worried about other issues. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were most concerned with anxiety students may be feeling, followed by social concerns, at 63 percent, and emotional ones, at 62 percent.

Educators and parents also say that pandemic teaching and learning highlighted the need for some changes to the traditional classroom set-up and schedule. For instance, more than half of educators—61 percent—see a need for more hands-on activities. Another 57 percent would like smaller class sizes. Nearly as many—55 percent—would like to see learning environments become more flexible. And over 50 percent want more one-on-one interaction with their students.

Two-thirds of parents said they would like schools to provide additional learning devices, such as laptops and/or tablets to households with more than one school-aged child. And just over half —54 percent—want guidance on how to access social services.

A total of 1,005 parents and 495 educators participated in the survey.

School Districts Seek Billions in New Federal Money for Connectivity, FCC Announces

Earlier this year, Congress approved more than $7 billion to help schools close the so-called homework gap. And it turns out that school districts in every state want a piece of that funding.

The Federal Communications Commission has announced it received $5.1 billion in requests for the aid in the first round of applications, which were due Aug. 13. The money—known as the Emergency Connectivity Fund—was approved in March as part of the broader American Rescue Plan, which was aimed at helping the country recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

The funding can be used for laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connections for students and school staff to use off-campus. It is also available to support learning outside of the school building, including homework, even if students have returned to full time in-person instruction.

If all $5 billion in projects is approved, the fund will still have about $2 billion left for other projects. The FCC announced that it is opening a second application window, which will run from Sept. 28 to Oct. 13, to support connectivity at schools and libraries during the 2021-22 academic year.

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, as many as 15 million of the country’s 50.7 million public school students lacked adequate connectivity to learn online at home, a Common Sense Media survey found.

School districts and state departments of education are working hard now to persuade Congress to make the emergency connectivity fund permanent,” said Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy, who advocates on behalf of the Consortium for School Networking. “Making the fund permanent is absolutely essential to how we deliver education 2021 and beyond.”

States Make It Hard to Tell How Much Schools Are Spending, Report Says

What good is collecting data if you can’t read it, interpret it, and use it to effect change?

That’s the question the civil rights advocates at EdTrust are asking of state education departments in a new report out last week that highlights how states are falling short of publishing meaningful school spending statistics that could drive more-equitable funding models.

The federal Every Student Success Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, requires states to break out for the general public how much districts spend on each individual school. Even as district leaders and some observers warned that those numbers would fuel contentious political fights, education funding advocates see the requirement as an opportunity to gain a more granular understanding of where education resources are going, and who is and isn’t benefiting from them.

Close to six years after ESSA’s passage, nearly one in five states still isn’t meeting the basic data reporting requirements of the law, the report says. And nearly every state failed EdTrust’s five-point test for whether available data from states meets its standards for meaningful transparency.

Reetchel Presume, EdTrust’s P-12 data and policy analyst, and Ivy Smith Morgan, EdTrust’s associate director for P-12 analytics, describe the current state of data reporting on school spending as “a missed opportunity.”

“Stakeholders need information, not just numbers, to advocate for more school funding, protect schools from budget cuts, or push to eliminate funding inequities,” they wrote.

Many state education departments lack the funding and resources to assemble and publish data to this extent. Advocates believe it can help highlight instances where districts aren’t adequately funding certain schools, and where marginalized students aren’t being well-served.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; and Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed


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