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Special Report
Special Education

Getting Students With Disabilities Back to Class

By Corey Mitchell — July 08, 2020 4 min read
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For many students with disabilities, access to education begins with transportation.

Plans for getting these students to and from school are spelled out in their Individualized Education Programs, the legal documents that govern schooling for students who are eligible for special education.

During the global pandemic brought on by the novel coronavirus, those travel plans could present a roadblock that hampers the ability of millions of children to return to in-person instruction.

Special Report: How We Go Back To School

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Read Part 2: Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year
Back to Part 3: Tackling the COVID-19 Transportation Problem

Whether it is a special bus equipped with a wheelchair lift or aides assigned to help medically fragile children or those with severe intellectual disabilities on traditional buses, the requirements can be costly and tough to navigate even during normal times.

If districts continue to choose remote learning, schools can keep using their bus fleets to deliver food and learning materials. If in-person classes resume, the route for a return to schools becomes more complicated.

In Albert Lea, a district in southern Minnesota, a small group of students with disabilities, roughly 20, are already back on buses and in class. To keep the coronavirus at bay and students at least six feet apart, the district is testing out staggered bus arrival times, and assigned seating and temperature checks for students.

This summer school program—designed to help students who struggled during remote learning—is a test run for a potential large-scale return to class in the fall. So far, things have gone off without a hitch. But it is an experiment with a small sample size that some parents opted out of because of concerns about putting vulnerable children at risk. When schools reopen, hundreds more students with disabilities will be eligible for transportation services, based on current counts.

With school systems across the country plotting out a return to school, some want to prioritize the needs of special education students—and get them back in class to make up for lost time with teachers, therapists, and support staff during the school closures that swept the nation. Nationwide, more than 7.1 million students—about 14 percent of K-12 students—receive special education services.

To pave the way for students’ return, state and district-level guidance on busing students has emphasized physical distancing and the need for masks and other personal protective equipment to keep students, bus drivers, and aides safe in small, enclosed spaces with many common contact surfaces that could facilitate the spread of coronavirus.

In northern Colorado, the Poudre schools will cut busing for most students in order to ensure that students with disabilities and homeless students—two groups guaranteed transportation under federal law—have access to it. Under the state’s current school transportation guidance, only five students would be able to ride on a 47-passenger special education bus. Standard district buses, which some students with disabilities use, would only have 10 of the 77 seats available, per the guidance.

Another dilemma districts face is that, while many students will have trouble adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, some students cannot or will not adhere to the guidelines: medically fragile students or those in wheelchairs who need help to board buses; students on the autism spectrum or those with intellectual disabilities who do not understand the need to wear masks; and children with an emotional disturbance who might refuse to observe the requirements.

No matter the circumstances, schools should not expect to get a pass on busing students, transportation and legal experts say.

A Maryland Department of Education guide on transportation for students with disabilities delivers advice on what schools must do to avoid violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The guide lays out transportation requirements and warns that district transportation departments should not make decisions without approval from a student’s IEP team, including teachers, therapists, paraprofessionals, and counselors or psychologists.

The guide suggests that districts survey parents to determine if students currently wear masks and are willing to keep them on. It also recommends that districts consider offering travel training—instructions that can help children with disabilities develop an awareness of their environment and safely use buses and other forms of transportation in ways that prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In New York City, nearly 75 percent of school bus breakdowns and delays involved special education buses, according to a newspaper analysis.

Roughly 40,000 children in the district are eligible for year-round special education services. Students will not return to class this summer, but the district will open sites across the city to resume one-on-one speech, physical, and occupational therapy services for students with disabilities. But it will not be busing students. Instead, the district will offer public transportation passes or travel reimbursement costs for families to get students to appointments.

Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order, they are: Brad Aemisegger, director of transportation, Toledo Public Schools; Tami Alphs, director of special services, Albert Lea, Minn., Area Schools; Tim Ammon, owner, Decision Support Group, and co-manager, STARTS (Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School) Task Force; Linda Bluth, transportation consultant, Maryland State Department of Education; Jesse Cole Cutler, partner, Law Office of Regina Skyler & Associates; Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment, National Disability Rights Network; Curt Macysyn, executive director, National School Transportation Association; Denise Marshall, executive director, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Kevin Rubenstein, assistant superintendent of student services, Elmhurst, Ill., Community Unit School District 205; Steve Simmons, president, National Association for Pupil Transportation; Wendy Tucker, senior director of policy, National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools; Julie Weatherly, owner and attorney, Resolutions in Special Education, Inc.

Documents: Transportation’s Role in Recovery Planning: Maryland State Department of Education; Transportation for Students With Disabilities: Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services, Maryland State Department of Education; Stronger Together: A Guidebook For the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools; Reopening 2020-2021, Wake County, N.C., Public School System; Marietta, Ga., City Schools: Student Learning Options and Safety Protocols; COVID-19 Considerations for Re-Opening Schools: Pupil Transportation, Kentucky Department of Education; Going Back to School Before the Kids: A Return to School Roadmap, National Association of Pupil Transportation; Poudre, Colo., School District, Transportation FAQ for 2020-21; Poudre, Colo., School District, Transportation FAQ 2020-21; New York City Department of Education, Extended School Year Services for July and August; NYC School Bus Delays and Breakdowns Increased 73% in Four Years, With Special Education Kids Most Impacted, New York Daily News, Aug. 25, 2019; Questions and Answers on Serving Children With Disabilities Eligible for Transportation, U.S. Department of Education.

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