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The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Learning and Academic Achievement

January 20, 2021

We would like to thank the New York City Council’s Committee on Education for holding this important oversight hearing on the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and academic achievement. 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 educate our 1.1 million children these last ten months, we testify today with great urgency for City Hall to prioritize right now the delivery and quality of education for nearly 300,000 students with disabilities ages 3-21 in New York City. Students with disabilities are not making adequate educational progress; each and every day the city is failing to meet their needs. 

During last Spring when New York City quickly became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York City school system was quickly and radically disrupted. Schools, teachers, and students faced significant barriers as we pivoted to full time remote instruction. While some obstacles were outside of the city’s control, many were not, and sadly are still obstructing teaching and learning almost a year later. 

More than a hundred thousand school professionals did not have the requisite skills nor access to evidence-based tools to effectively provide online instruction and special education services. As a result, very little, if any, specialized instruction was delivered throughout the city last Spring and Summer. This created additional learning barriers for students with disabilities in a system that was already failing our students. And the same issues still persist in too many of our schools and classrooms. 

Student learning cannot occur if:

  • Appropriate instruction is not delivered or cannot be accessed
  • Students with disabilities do not receive any or all their related services and individualized support
  • The City and schools do not provide families with consistent, clear and timely information
  • Students do not have consistent access to broadband, devices, or an environment that is supportive for learning
  • Students on remote instruction in need of full time support cannot access a formally trained adult to help support and teach them at home

Measuring the academic achievement of students with disabilities and teachers on their efficacy and impact in typical times is hard; the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for schools to do so. Tools for formally measuring achievement such as standardized tests and alternative assessments have been temporarily suspended by the City, State, and the U.S. Department of Education. Other formal tools traditionally used to specifically measure the progress of individual students receiving special education services such as goals on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are moot. Most students’ IEPs no longer reflect their present levels of performance and therefore, their goals are no longer appropriate. In addition, the quality of informal assessments conducted by teachers has been compromised as the result of online learning and all its associated challenges. 

We cannot measure the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and academic achievement if we do not have data, nor the required infrastructure to capture it. We need data that helps us understand the extent to which the overall well being of students affects their learning so that the City can use it to better target support for students, teachers, and schools in need.  

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

  • Develop a citywide plan to adequately address compensatory services by June 30, 2021
  • Disseminate guidance documents for schools on the implementation of their citywide compensatory plan by August 30, 2021
  • Reevaluate every student with an IEP by December 31, 2021, in addition to their annual review of IEP 
  • Create borough-based centers for on-site evaluations and related services
  • 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
  • Create an accountability mechanism that measures social emotional instruction and learning
  • Reorganize school psychologists so each District 75 organization has their own  
  • Provide parents with more support and training on: specially designed instruction and online learning, behavior supports, digital literacy, educational rights

Without the City taking immediate action, we fear the implications will be drastic. This generation of NYC students with disabilities are unjustly struggling and will continue to be for the long-term, resulting in inadequate literacy skills, unemployment, behavioral challenges, and the inability 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