Compared to the start of school last year, there was much for children and parents to celebrate when the 2021-22 school year started, including the fact that most children could attend school in person and the availability in November of vaccines for children under 12. That good news, however, was complicated by ongoing issues related to education for children with disabilities, including autistic children.
Whether to require masks in schools has become a political hot potato, with states across the country putting different policies in place. According to the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities, as of the end of October, 16 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) required that masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccine status. Those states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington. Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee have been blocked by the courts from banning school mask mandates. Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah have banned school districts from mandating masks. In mid-November, a federal judge ruled that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, leaving school officials free to require masks in their schools. Montana required schools to demonstrate that they took parents’ concerns into consideration if they adopted a mask mandate. The remaining states left the school masking decision to each school district.
Those divides have created problems for parents whose children may be immunocompromised or unable to get a vaccine for other health reasons. While those children should for the most part be able to attend school virtually, many of them will not be able to receive the services they need, such as occupational and speech therapy. Parents have also noted that the children’s mental health and academic progress are at risk if they must attend school virtually again this school year.
As a result, parents and disability advocates are filing complaints in at least six states, as an article on the K-12Dive website explained. The argument they make is that by prohibiting mask mandates, states discriminate against students with disabilities and block equal access to education because the prohibition puts those students at greater risk. In Texas and other states, parents of children with disabilities argue that they have been forced to find a separate place for their children’s education, mostly through remote learning at home and often without access to the therapies and support their children need as spelled out in their individual education programs (IEPs).
As Claire Raj, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, explained in a September article on The Conversation website, the grounds for the complaints come from the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, both of which bar public schools from discriminating against students with disabilities. Specifically, she writes, the ADA and Section 504 “require schools to make reasonable modifications that are necessary to ensure equal access to public schools. Further, both laws prohibit schools from needlessly segregating students with disabilities into separate learning environments when they could participate in regular classrooms with appropriate supports.”
The Conversation article and several others noted that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating several states, including Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, to determine if their bans on mask mandates are discriminatory. If the Office of Civil Rights does find that those states are discriminating against children with disabilities, then it may negotiate agreements with those states to bring them into compliance.
A recent DisabilityScoop article pointed out that parents of children with disabilities are on both sides of the mask mandate issue. In Florida, for example, a nonverbal child with Down syndrome had a mask tied around her head while she was in class, and her father has been vocal in his disagreement with mask mandates. That story illustrates the challenges that face the disability community, said Ann Siegal, legal director of Disability Rights Florida, in the DisabilityScoop article. She has heard from parents whose children struggle to wear face masks as well as those whose children have been unable to attend school because they are at greater risk of getting COVID-19 and their schools do not mandate mask wearing.
An issue related to mask mandates is also cropping up — defining schools’ obligations when it comes to distance learning for students with disabilities. An article on the Chalkbeat website noted that school districts do not have to offer virtual learning and most have curtailed their distance learning programs to encourage children to return to school. In some cases, families have been referred to “home and hospital instruction,” which is usually for short-term needs and provides significantly less teaching than a regular school day, as described by the Chalkbeat article.
Federal guidance requires school districts to “ensure that a child with a disability whose needs can be met through virtual learning” receive “all of the services they’re legally entitled to.” Many lawyers across the country are alleging that districts are not adhering to that guidance and are inappropriately excluding students by claiming that their needs cannot be met online, even though many of them received special education services virtually last year. Even federal officials, however, have encouraged parents to get their children into the classroom, including children with disabilities.
Special Ed Teachers and Paraprofessionals in Short Supply
Chalkbeat noted in its article that special education teachers and paraprofessionals have been among the hardest positions for schools to fill this school year. An article in EducationWeek said that nationwide data on school staff shortages is for the most part not available. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 460,000 jobs were available in July, more than double the open jobs at the same time in 2020. In a second Chalkbeat article, 18 of 20 large school districts that gave data to Chalkbeat reported more teacher vacancies this year than last year. The Los Angeles school system, for example, had 500 vacancies at the start of the school year, versus 100 for the last two years.
A Bridge Michigan article noted that staff shortages are particularly difficult for students with disabilities. A staff person from a Michigan disability advocacy organization said in The Bridge article that parents are reporting that IEPs are not being implemented and services are not being provided. Without paraprofessionals, children may not be able to participate fully in their education. In some cases, they may not be able to go to school at all. Education officials around the state say in the article that finding paraprofessionals before the pandemic began was hard, and now it is worse, with few or no applicants for open positions.
The EducationWeek article described the factors behind shortages as “complex,” according to interviews with economists, administrators, and employees. Fear for their safety, pay gaps, and the conflicts related to vaccines and masks all play into the shortage.
Too Few Bus Drivers
In addition to paraprofessional and teacher shortages, many school systems have not been able to find enough school bus drivers. The EducationWeek article reported that, according to a survey done by the National School Transportation Association, approximately half of school district representatives responding said they were severely or desperately short of drivers.
In Chicago, for example, at the beginning of the school year, the public school system said that 910 students with disabilities whose IEPs mandate transportation, were without bus service due to a shortage of drivers, reported The Washington Post. They were part of a larger group of 2,100 students, some with special needs and others who were enrolled in magnet or gifted programs, who qualify for bus service and didn’t have it this year. By October, as noted in the Post article, more than 2,400 students with transportation mandated by IEPs were without bus service.
Chad Aldeman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said in the EducationWeek article that “every district is trying to open, the country is trying to open. There’s just a massive competition now for workers.” As with paraprofessionals and other positions that pay similar wages, low pay as well as the conflicts over mask mandates and vaccines appear to be behind the shortage, according to a number of recent news articles. Bus drivers are often retired from their full-time jobs and work as drivers to supplement their retirement income. Age and health may also play into their decisions not to work as bus drivers this year.
Where do these issues leave children with disabilities and their parents? For many, in a tough spot at a time when they, like many of us, were hoping for a return to more normality, according to news reports cited in this article and numerous others as well. While COVID-19 cases may be waning across the country, the effects of the pandemic continue to impact education.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.