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2021 School Reopening Protocols

September 1, 2021

We would like to thank the New York City Council’s Committee on Education for holding this important oversight hearing on the City’s school reopening protocols this Fall. My name is Lori Podvesker, and I lead the policy work at INCLUDEnyc. INCLUDEnyc (formerly Resources for Children with Special Needs) has helped NYC families navigate the complex special education service and support systems for almost 40 years.

While we commend the Mayor and Chancellor for their efforts to bring back 1 million children in-person to classrooms on September 13th, we testify today with great urgency for City Hall to address the pressing educational and emotional needs of the 300,000+ students with disabilities ages 3-21 right now in New York City.

Students with disabilities are among the most academically and socially impacted group of students within our public school system the last eighteen months, almost half of whom have not been attending in-person instruction at school since the start of the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of students with IEPs are BIPOC, and we know COVID has affected these communities more than others. 

Less than two weeks away from the first day of school, we are still waiting for the City to release its official plan on how schools will address and make up missed instruction and related services, also known as compensatory services. Families need to know now how they can best prepare to be involved in the decision making process regarding compensatory services with their child’s IEP team. But this is not possible without official guidance from the Department of Education on the criteria the City will use when making these decisions, nor a timeline for when implementation will begin. It’s also not fair to school administrators, who need this information as soon as possible, so they can appropriately operationalize and staff accordingly to deliver services. 

There also has been no mention of if and how related services will be provided remotely for students with disabilities who will be asked to quarantine due to a shutdown of their class or school. Nor do we know if the same group of students should expect remote instruction to be taught by certified special education teachers. In addition, we think it’s a misstep for the City not to offer full-time remote instruction to all students and families who believe it’s necessary for their child and family, including students with documented psychological reasons that interfere with their learning, including trauma and severe anxiety. 

We also have concerns about students with disabilities having equitable access to pandemic recovery related activities. This includes the provision of round-trip transportation from a student’s school, afterschool, and Saturday programs. It also includes the need for our students to begin these supports and services sooner than the expected projected starting time in late October or early November.  

School busing continues to be problematic due to a lack of timely and accessible information for families. Policy changes such as bus route information are only available through a NYC School Account or if shared by a DOE employee. The City no longer mails information to a student’s home. Yet many families do not know this. We have additional concerns about the prospect of bus driver and attendant shortages, adequate OPT staff who can process and resolve busing related issues, and the overall health and safety procedures and practices for the 11,000 plus routes that will fully be back in operation.

As a result of these issues, we recommend that the Department of Education and the City:

  • Immediately provide written guidance to all 1800 schools on compensatory services 
  • Provide family friendly parallel information that includes the use of visuals, is translated into multiple languages, and available at the exact same time as English materials; inclusive of due process rights and a list of independent, non DOE organizations who can help support them 
  • Release more information on what remote instruction will look like for students with disabilities 
  • Create a citywide multilingual marketing campaign targeted to families of students with disabilities detailing the extra support and programs available (similar to how the city messages information on school surveys, preschool enrollment, and parents applying to local and citywide education councils)
  • Amplify communications to schools and families regarding student eligibility for home instruction, with an emphasis on students who have psychological needs and not medical
  • Immediately provide a date when bus route information will become available for families 
  • Proactively plan to provide transportation for all students to and from home and school for all programs

Thank you for taking the time to consider these important matters. We look forward to partnering with you to improve equity and access for all students with disabilities in New York City. 

Respectfully submitted, 

Lori Podvesker

Director of Disability and Education Policy