It’s been eight weeks since the school year began, and Seattle Public Schools has just started offering in-person services for students in special education. One student started this week and the district plans to expand that to 65 children.
The approach to offering these services differs district by district. The Shoreline, Everett and Highline districts have not started in-person services for students with special needs yet, though Highline and Everett plan to do so next month. Meanwhile, the Bellevue School District is providing in-person learning for 150 students, or roughly 5 percent of its population of students who qualify for special education services, and has been offering face-to-face learning since late September, said spokesperson Michael May.
School districts are grappling with how to protect students and staff from the coronavirus, especially as cases have spiked in recent weeks. But remote schooling in the pandemic has placed a lot of burdens on families, particularly caregivers of children with special needs. Many children with disabilities require more hands-on assistance to be able to access their education, and it’s an enormous task for parents or caregivers to provide that help while balancing their own work responsibilities.
The state’s Office of the Education Ombuds helps families navigate issues in the public K-12 education system. The office has been receiving a lot of calls from families around the state seeking in-person school services for children with special needs, said Rose Spidell, senior education ombuds.
“Parents, grandparents, aunts that are taking care of kids — they’re called on to not only be parents but to be educators at the same time, and sometimes it’s just too much,” she said. “One of the groups of students that we’ve been hearing about that for some of them it’s been a real struggle are youth who are in foster care, and for sure, youth and families experiencing homelessness.”
Seattle district leaders said one reason it’s taken this long to offer in-person learning is that they’ve had to review each student’s individual progress. They need to see if students require in-person instruction to meet their academic goals. Concie Pedroza is chief of student supports for the Seattle district.
“The next step after that is a health and safety review from the nurses and then the final step to that is doing staffing,” Pedroza said.
She said staffing is not easy because it means shifting teachers from their current remote instruction assignments and then backfilling those positions. The 65 students the district plans to teach in person make up less than 1 percent of the roughly 8,000 Seattle Public Schools students who qualify for special education services.
Highline, which serves SeaTac, Burien and other communities south of Seattle, plans to provide in-person learning to 157 students starting Nov. 9. Everett will bring 175 students with special needs back for face-to-face instruction starting Nov. 16. Shoreline is still working on its plans for how to offer these services safely, especially given the recent climb in coronavirus cases in King County, said spokesperson Curtis Campbell.
In Tacoma, about 750 students are receiving in-person services. That equals about 17 percent of the district’s population of students who qualify for special education services, said spokesperson Dan Voelpel. The Puyallup district is serving small groups of students with special needs. The groups include as many as five students and one or two educators. District spokesperson Sarah Gillispie said about 760 students are being served.