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Joint Committee Oversight Hearing on Reopening and Students with Disabilities

October 23, 2020

We would like to thank the New York City Council’s Education and Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction Committees for holding this important oversight hearing on the reopening of NYC public schools and its impact on students with disabilities. My name is Lori Podvesker, and I am the Director of Policy at INCLUDEnyc. For nearly 40 years, INCLUDEnyc (formerly Resources for Children with Special Needs) has helped NYC families navigate the complex special education service and support systems.

While we commend the Mayor and Chancellor for their efforts to return 1.1 million children to classrooms during a global public health pandemic, economic crisis, and civil and emotional unrest, we testify today with great urgency for City Hall to prioritize the education of nearly 300,000 students with disabilities ages 3-21 in New York City right now, and for the long term, at least for the next 10 years as our city recovers from COVID-19. 

While COVID-19, and remote and blended learning, have disrupted the lives of all students and their families, students with disabilities have been the most affected by these disruptions. Changes in routines, and loss of in-person instruction, supports, and services have placed additional barriers to a quality education in a system that pre-pandemic was already failing our students. The pandemic has greatly exacerbated the preexisting achievement gap between general education students and students with disabilities. 

Last spring, when the pandemic first hit, and remote learning was in place for all students in the school system, parents of students with disabilities became special education teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, mental health counselors, and the main source of interaction for their kids. Parents were required to take on these roles all while surviving day-to-day, and keeping their families and themselves healthy, safe, housed, fed, clothed, and employed.  This was if they were fortunate enough to have a job, and/or keep an existing job with all the new and competing priorities. 

One parent said “buying food, paying rent, internet and electricity [and] trying to make sure my son is not becoming anxious about what is happening are my biggest challenges right now.” And another parent said “I want my child to actually learn something and for the therapists to fulfill the mandates instead of telling me, in front of my child, that services were optional.”  Nearly 8,000 parents and professionals reached out to INCLUDEnyc for information and support in March-September, representing a 200% increase this year from last during the same time period.

Many families feel their children are not learning and report regression in knowledge and skills due to lack of access to qualified special education teachers, specialized instruction, and related services. Other families are still waiting for remote or in-person initial evaluations. Families have also reached out to us because their child still does not have a working device or consistent internet to access their school and classes.  

Communication between schools and NYC DOE and families is unsatisfactory. School-based information such as schedules, accessing school’s online learning platforms, or the names and contact information of their child’s teacher and therapists are not being consistently communicated. Information from Central DOE is not given in a timely manner, including information about transportation and the timing of school reopening. And many non-English speaking families are not receiving communications in their home language. 

We also have seen an increase in the number of calls from families of students who attend District 75 programs and from professionals who are looking for information on residential programs for students who would otherwise remain at home.

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

  • Develop a realistic plan to hire additional licensed special education teachers and related service providers by March 31, 2021
  • Create borough-based centers for on-site evaluations and related services
  • Reevaluate every student with an IEP by December 31, 2021
  • Publish school-based data four times a year on the timeliness and delivery of special education evaluations and all IEP-mandated special education services and supports 
  • Provide parents with more support and training on: specially designed instruction and online learning, behavior supports, digital literacy, educational rights
  • To better publicize the mechanisms they have in place for families to escalate special education problems such as calling 311 or emailing 
  • Improve universal access to broadband
  • Provide training and support for District 75 educators on trauma-informed instruction for students with developmental disabilities 

Without the City taking immediate action, we fear the implications will contribute to a generation of NYC students with disabilities unjustly struggling the rest of their lives with inadequate literacy skills, unemployment, incarceration, homelessness, housing, mental health, and ability to appropriately socialize. 

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