Hours after federal officials released findings that the nation’s second-largest school district had failed to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the document lit up the email lists of advocates who’ve sounded the alarm about such concerns since schools first shut down in March 2020.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights found that the Los Angeles Unified School District failed: to provide services required by students’ individualized education programs during remote learning, to adequately track special education services, and to deliver adequate compensatory services, such as additional physical therapy or reading interventions, to address those gaps.
In an April 27 resolution agreement, the district agreed to a plan to remedy those issues and to further assess the needs of individual students with disabilities moving forward.
The findings echoed what some parents around the country have said since the earliest days of the national crisis: Left without the supports, accommodations, and services promised to their students under the nation’s special education and disability rights laws, they were forced to largely go it alone, fearing lost academic and developmental progress for their children as a result.
“If I’m going to be hopeful, I would be hopeful that there will be less of these agreements coming out because districts are doing the right thing on the front end,” said Wendy Tucker, the senior director of policy at the Center for Learner Equity, a national advocacy organization for students with disabilities in districts and charter schools.
“If I’m being realistic, I would expect that we would see more of these,” she added. “I think the Department of Education is not playing. The office for civil rights is taking this very seriously.”
Advocates hope to use the Los Angeles agreement— the result of one of hundreds of federal investigations into special education during the pandemic— as an example and an affirmation to parents elsewhere that their children’s rights matter, she said.
A complicated law meets the realities of an unprecedented crisis
Providing special education services has been a tricky issue for schools since the start of remote learning in 2020, district leaders have said. It was difficult to adjust students’ personalized learning plans quickly to meet the logistics of a new reality, in which staff members like occupational therapists could not interact with students in person, and to make accommodations for things like reading processing issues in a virtual classroom environment.
In response to those challenges, some groups like AASA, the School Superintendents Association, pressed then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive some requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s primary special education law.
But DeVos and her successor, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, instead repeatedly emphasized that schools must meet requirements in IDEA and in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to provide all students a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, regardless of disability status. The laws include an array of specific requirements for identifying, supporting, and equitably educating children with disabilities.
In September 2021 guidance, for example, the Education Department stressed that schools should individually evaluate students’ IEPs to determine what specific compensatory services may be necessary to address gaps from the previous year and a half. Those services could include additional therapies or interventions or more time receiving certain supports.
It’s likely other districts will soon reach agreements similar to LAUSD’s. The Education Department has opened over 1,400 investigations that address the provision of a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, for students with disabilities since March 2020, the month most schools abruptly shifted to remote learning, an agency spokesperson said.
Investigating special education in a major school system
Compensatory education was one of the issues federal officials flagged in Los Angeles in an investigation they launched on Jan. 12, 2021, the office for civil rights said in the resolution agreement Thursday.
“Los Angeles Unified has been and will continue to engage in ensuring individualized determinations are made for students with disabilities through Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 Plan team meetings,” an LAUSD spokesperson said in a statement after the agreement’s release.
Among federal investigators’ findings:
- The district “did not require that the amount of services provided actually match IEPs minute for minute during remote learning” and did not have a system to evaluate whether remote services matched IEP requirements.
- Special education service providers were directed to provide services “to the maximum extent feasible” to students learning remotely.
- Providers documented communications, including emails and phone calls, as time spent providing services.
- The district advised educators not to use the term “compensatory education” in IEP meetings, asserting in a training webinar that “compensatory education is not intended for situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.”
- Los Angeles schools didn’t enact a plan “adequate to remedy the instances in which students with disabilities were not provided a FAPE during remote learning.”
In the resolution, the district agreed to create a plan for assessing and providing compensatory services; to appoint a designated person to oversee that plan’s implementation; to conduct IEP and 504 plan meetings to assess whether students’ needs were met; and to document and report progress and related data to federal officials.
Nothing in the agreement is particularly surprising, advocacy groups said, because its components mirror what the Education Department has repeatedly emphasized to schools, districts, and state education agencies throughout the pandemic.
“We understand that districts have had a really tough couple of years, and it was logistically incredibly difficult to provide services, but we are at a point now where we can try to do things to mitigate the impact of the pandemic,” said Lindsay Kubatzky, director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
A signal to other school districts?
Kubatzky applauded Los Angeles schools for entering the resolution and the federal Education Department for sending a signal that it takes its “watchdog role” seriously by taking such a large school district to task.
“What I hope is that districts take this as a sign that they should be proactive and address some of the instructional loss that we’ve seen” without the need for federal intervention, he said.
Advocates also hope districts will respect the role of parents in requesting services and advocating for their children’s needs.
Tucker, of the Center for Learning Equity, said the success of plans in Los Angeles and other districts will depend on whether all parents and guardians—including those with limited income and those for whom English is a second language—are equally included.
Parents initially understood that the pandemic’s unprecedented circumstances were a big challenge to schools, Tucker said. But, as weeks of interruptions turned to years in some cases, some saw their school systems as making excuses or “kicking the can down the road.”
And, when some students with disabilities returned to in-person learning, they were greeted not with targeted plans to make things right but with general district learning-loss efforts that didn’t meet their specific needs, Tucker said.
She hopes the Los Angeles agreement will be a tool for advocacy and a signal to other school systems to address lingering concerns about learning interruptions for students with disabilities.
“Families of students with disabilities often feel like they are a low priority,” Tucker said. “That was especially true during this time.”
Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.