Chicago’s New Plan to Partially Re-Open Schools for Special Needs Kids Amid Concerns Over Halting the Spread of COVID-19

Written by Taher Kameli & Chathan Vemuri

 

The protective measures taken against potentially crowded facilities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many parents of children in the Chicago Public School system anxious as to when to partake of these interpersonal activities again.[1] While many parents recognize the importance of social distance learning at this time, parents of very young children or special needs children are particularly concerned that remote learning is not meeting the distinctive needs of their children and could fundamentally disrupt their education in the long term.[2]  These parents are not opposed to remote learning per se and they take seriously the need to impose restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease.[3] What concerns them most, however, is the effectiveness of remote learning as currently implemented.[4] Their fear is that failure of their kids to adjust to the remote learning scheme as implemented will fundamentally damage their educational success in the long term and leave them behind, especially at such critical ages and with such conditions.[5] The Chicago Public Schools school district is aware of this problem and wants to accommodate the needs of these children so as to ensure strong school attendance.[6]

One such proposal floated by the Chicago Public Schools District (CPS) could provide some respite to special needs children deprived of crucial personalized special education services that are part of their individualized education programs (IEPs). Under the proposed plan, school buildings could be re-opened on a limited basis for some special education students in order to give them in-person therapeutic services such as physical therapy or vision and hearing screenings.[7] The proposal only allows this partial re-opening to some special needs students, not all.[8] The focus is on services that are deemed by both the school district and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) as best provided on an in-person basis.[9] The CPS sees this as an extraordinary exception to the rule, for while they are committed to ensuring health and safety of teachers, staff and students in the wake of the global pandemic, they also feel essential student services such as hearing and vision tests and physical therapy can be carried out safely in person and must be so in order for those students with special needs to benefit.[1]

The proposal has seen support from some as a first step to accommodating special needs children and fulfilling their IEPs during the pandemic while others find that it still puts teachers in harms away and increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19. On the one hand, special education advocates have argued that opening the schools on a limited basis to provide key services to some special education students is an important first step to helping the different and unique needs of Chicago’s student population during the pandemic, especially as many special needs children are unable to make use of the online learning platforms used for remote learning on account of their disabilities.[2] Some special education advocates feel that the schools are applying remote learning guidance from the CPS district as if it was a one size fits all approach, when in reality it does not work for everyone,[3] least of all special education students whose needs are highly individualized based not only on their disability, but on their personalities, experiences, and resources, among other factors. These advocates argue that parents cannot necessarily make heads or tale about the guidance for remote learning as they are not teachers, often come from non-English speaking backgrounds or are overwhelmed by the whole process of finding quality remote special education for their children.[4] Parents also feel that in order for remote special education learning to work, it needs to be tailored as to both synchronize the CPS district’s social distancing educational requirements to fit their children’s IEPs and to give parents a part in constructing the implementation of  remote special education for their children.[5] Implementing this proposal may help make things easier for these parents by allowing limited in person services at schools for some of their children rather than putting them through a confusing remote special education procedure that they can’t understand and which doesn’t suit their children’s needs.

On the other hand, teachers’ union officials, while they recognize these limited services are given in person, are uncomfortable with the proposed change as they do not see any safe option available for medical care professionals working at schools, pointing to statistics such as the 258 COVID-19 cases among CPS staff since March.[6] Similarly, union officials and clinicians who work with special needs’ students are concerned about the logistics of the proposal as it would still involve clinicians working at multiple schools with multiple students, with “caseloads [including] more than 50 students.” [1] Not to mention the problem of how to transport these students to their services[2] as many of them rely on public transportation such as the school buses to get to their schools. Some have proposed re-assigning some students to lighten clinician’s caseloads but union officials argue that this would be detrimental to the unique relationships forged between parents and clinicians who know their child best from extensive experience.[3]

This proposal has not been finalized so it’s not clear if it will even apply long term. However, the demand for providing limited in person special education to help kids keep up with their peers has to take into account the legitimate concerns of school staff having to expose themselves the most due to this work. It requires the difficult task of balancing a special needs child’s right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) guaranteed to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) with the needs of school staff to stay safe and in good health so as to halt the curve of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It is up to the parents to work with special education practitioners and their school districts to come up with a plan that accounts for both their special needs’ children’s unique needs and the health and safety needs of the special education professional working with them, be it a teacher or clinician or any other type of professional trained in special education issues working with children.

[1] Id.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[1] Id.

[2] Id.

[3] Hannah Leone, CPS Plans for Reopening Schools Still Uncertain as Parents Share Remote Learning Woes: “It’s Just Not Working. Chi. Trib. (Sept. 23, 2020, 5:42 PM) available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-chicago-public-schools-remote-learning-covid-19-20200923-nhsm2havbreilar6up4gfniffq-story.html

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Yana Kunichoff and Samantha Smylie, Chicago Could Bring Some Special Education Students into School for Services Under New Plan, Block Club Chicago (Sept. 22, 2020 7:59 AM CDT) available at https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/09/22/chicago-could-bring-some-special-education-students-into-school-for-services-under-new-plan/

[1] Hannah Leone, CPS Plans for Reopening Schools Still Uncertain as Parents Share Remote Learning Woes: “It’s Just Not Working. Chi. Trib. (Sept. 23, 2020, 5:42 PM) available at https://www.chicagotribune.com/coronavirus/ct-chicago-public-schools-remote-learning-covid-19-20200923-nhsm2havbreilar6up4gfniffq-story.html

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Yana Kunichoff and Samantha Smylie, Chicago Could Bring Some Special Education Students into School for Services Under New Plan, Block Club Chicago (Sept. 22, 2020 7:59 AM CDT) available at https://blockclubchicago.org/2020/09/22/chicago-could-bring-some-special-education-students-into-school-for-services-under-new-plan/

[8] Id.

[9] Id.