Special Education

Providing Special Education in a Time of Disaster

By Christina A. Samuels — October 10, 2017 2 min read
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My colleague Andrew Ujifusa has been on the ground in Puerto Rico, reporting on how the territory is trying to rebuild its school system after a devastating hurricane wrought damage across the island three weeks ago.

An interview with Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, shows just how formidable a task educators face. Puerto Rico has more than 1,200 schools. This week, officials hoped to reopen 165.

From the article:

We understand that if our teachers aren't well, they're not going to be able to take care of our students," said Keleher, who's been Puerto Rico's schools chief since January and took over a system with a massive debt and that had to close a large number of schools recently. As for the U.S. Department of Education, Keleher said she appreciates the funding flexibility that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has provided. What else do Keleher and her department need to help schools recover? Congress could also waive requirements around adult and special education. And Keleher said she looks at the funding package given to schools in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and says something similar would be appropriate for her schools. "Those restart funds were huge [after Katrina]," Keleher said in an interview here with Education Week. "If we're strategic about it, it's only going to advance our reforms quicker."

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance for states and regions affected by natural disasters. As of now, that includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as other states that are receiving displaced students. That’s with another two months of hurricane season ahead of us, and doesn’t include the major disaster declaration just made today in California, which is dealing with deadly wildfires in the Napa Valley region.

So just what kind of flexibility to schools and districts have? The guidance notes that:

  • Schools in disaster areas are not required to provide a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE, to special education students while they are closed to all students.
  • If a school is providing general education but can’t meet a student’s individualized education program, the student’s IEP team has to meet to determine what services can be provided. The IEP team would also determine what compensatory education a student might need if there has been a long school closure.
  • Schools that enroll displaced students with disabilities must provide services comparable to those in the student’s former school, until the new district can conduct its own assessment.
  • With Education Department approval, states can choose cut their special education spending under a provision of special education law that allows funding reductions in “exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances.” Some states received permission to do this during the Great Recession. Without such a waiver, federal special education law says that states may only maintain or increase their special education funding from year to year.

In general, the Education Department said, it wants to provide what support it can to states and regions as they recover and rebuild, said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “For children of affected families, returning to school can provide stability in a time of upheaval as they reconstruct their lives,” she said in a statement.

Photo: Jeremy Vasquez collects water at a relief station set up at the Ramon Luis Cabanas baseball stadium in the San Jose neighborhood of Utuado, Puerto Rico.—Swikar Patel/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.