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Oversight Hearing on Meeting the Needs of Students with Disabilities in the COVID era

November 18, 2021

We would like to thank the New York City Council’s Committee on Education for holding this important oversight hearing on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in the COVID era. My name is Lori Podvesker and I am the Director of Disability and Education Policy at INCLUDEnyc. INCLUDEnyc is the leading source of training and information for young people ages 0-26 with known or suspected disabilities, their parents, and the professionals who support them. We have helped New York City families navigate the complex special education service and support systems for almost 40 years.  

While we commend the Mayor and Chancellor for their leadership on safely reopening schools, and creating a rigorous academic recovery plan for all students this Fall, we testify today, yet again, 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. We urge you to maintain that commitment over the next few years as our city continues to receive additional foundation aid from New York State and federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and other stimulus packages. 

Prior to the pandemic, there were long known inequities within our public school systems, including an access and achievement gap between general education students and students with disabilities in New York City. For the 2016 cohort, there was a 32% difference in the four year August graduation rate among these two groups of students. 

COVID only worsened existing problems for students receiving special education support and services. From March 2020 – September 2021, many students with disabilities did not not receive a quality education because they were unable to consistently access technology, timely special education evaluations and IEP mandated related services, or specialized instruction, either online or in-person. Many students academically regressed during this time. 

We appreciate the City’s overall academic recovery plan and specifically their special education recovery services initiative. However, the City recently pushed back the starting date of these services for students identified as most in need to December 6, 2021. It is  unacceptable for the City to continue delaying vital services to students with disabilities to which they are legally entitled and to initiate special education recovery services almost three months after the school year begins.

The intersection of these extra special education services and how students will receive missed (compensatory) services also still remains unclear. We urge this committee to clarify how students receiving additional special education services and their families will be protected under the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as these services are not funded by the same mechanisms. Academic Recovery Plan (ARP) services are intended to supplement IEP services, not supplant them. Furthermore, families need to know  how they can pursue having all pandemic related missed (compensatory) services for their child made up.

In addition, during this past summer, the City launched a new initiative in response to the pandemic, called Summer Rising. It was open to all students and was a combination of academics and recreational and social activities. However, many students with disabilities were unable to access them due to a lack of appropriate support and program staff. While many others, especially students with 12-month IEPs with citywide specialized program (District 75) recommendations, could not participate due to the City not providing school bus services at the end of day from the enrichment programs to students’ homes. A few weeks into Summer Rising, the City announced travel reimbursements for students with disabilities and students who are living in temporary housing. But it was too late for many eligible families who had long made summer plans and/or couldn’t pick up their child from the program at 6 PM each day. This was not in alignment with guidance from the U.S. Department of Education stating students with disabilities must be included and have equitable access to all ARP-funded programs.

We are concerned that history may repeat itself again. The City has yet to release details on how transportation will be provided to students receiving special education recovery services. It is unfair for the City and schools to ask families to commit their child to receiving these services when it is unknown if services will be provided remotely, in-person, and if busing services will be provided. Therefore, the City needs to communicate with schools and families right now if alternative transportation options to and from these programs will be available, or if students with disabilities can receive these services at a different school, if their current school can not or will not provide these services or programs. 

We also want to highlight persistent staffing shortages. This includes school-based positions such as certified special education teachers, related service providers, nurses, social workers, and transition counselors. There also is a shortage of bus drivers, attendants, and busing paraprofessionals. Our kids need all these people in order to access their mandated special education supports, services, and for them to make educational progress. 

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