Compensatory education: What is it and when is it coming?

Written by on June 2, 2021

Compensatory education: What is it and when is it coming?

By Chloe Nouvelle

June 2, 2021

More than 300,000 students were receiving special education services in Pennsylvania when schools suddenly closed last spring.

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That means many kids lost access to people and programs they rely on and to which they are legally entitled. 

Education officials in Washington and Harrisburg came up with a plan to remedy that, but it’s still unclear how schools are supposed to do it at this scale. 

Special education classrooms usually have high teacher-to-student ratios. 

And they’re often bursting with unique, tactile learning tools to keep kids engaged. Things like a big bucket of rainbow gel beads kids can plunge their hands into. 

When the pandemic shuttered schools, many special education students suddenly lost access to these rooms, their teachers, their aides, and even things like physical therapy. 

However, students’ right to have them didn’t stop because of COVID.

“The United States Department of Education made it clear for students with disabilities that their right to a free appropriate public education continues at all times during the pandemic,” according to Robin Cunconan-Lahr, a Lehigh Valley attorney specializing  in special education law. 

“Although the rights that they have as students with disabilities may look different during the pandemic, the rights remain,” Cunconan-Lahr says. 

This next part gets a little wonky.

Before the pandemic, there was a model for how to “make up” services that districts couldn’t or didn’t deliver to individual special education students.

It’s called compensatory education, or comp ed. It provides things like therapeutic services or reading support after school or over the summer

Cunconan-Lahr says last summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Education did issue guidance to help school districts roll out COVID-19 Compensatory Services

It’s kind of an old model with a new name, new rules, and targeted to help a lot more students.

Rebecca Young is an attorney with a firm that represents a lot of Lehigh Valley school districts. 

“We’re talking about something specific to the inability to provide in-person instruction to any student for a full quarter of a school year, which hasn’t happened before. So that’s the difference in what we’re even talking about,” Young says. 

But here’s part of the challenge. During the pandemic, some schools missed a quarter. 

Others, like the Allentown School District, missed more than a year.

Cathy Roccia-Meier, project director of Leadership Development for the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, says the early COVID comp ed guidance assumed schools would be mainly open by fall 2020 and throughout 2021. And, as we now know, that wasn’t the case.

“The guidance, I don’t think, lended itself to this longer term virtual/hybrid situation that some districts were in,” Roccia-Meier says.

Longer term virtual limbo is where Lisbeth Little has been for over a year. 

Little is a full-time working mom in Montgomery County’s Abington School District. She has four kids, three of whom are school-aged. And all three of them have IEPs, which means – by law – they’re entitled to special education. 

Her eldest, Joshua, is 12. He has autism and anxiety. Before the pandemic, he had a one-to-one aide at school. 

But Little says, since moving online, Joshua’s school work has been pared down to math and language arts.

And he’s had to go without his aide. 

“Now instead of the process of logging him in for a class, now, I also had the login with the helper, and my son was very resistant to being on cameras. It wasn’t helpful. It’s that type of level of service. When we require one-on-one it doesn’t work virtually at all,” Little says. 

The way COVID comp ed was rolled out, Little says, left special education students and their families without enough to work with. 

“I was disappointed that there was no federal guidance other than ‘oh, we’re gonna give you COVID comp.’ And then didn’t really describe when and where or what. It was left kind of loosey goosey, up to everyone. There’s just this thing, it’s available. Don’t worry. It’s coming,” Little says.

The question is: When?

Esther Lindstrom, an assistant professor of Special Education at Lehigh University, says there’s a lot at stake when kids don’t have the support they need.

“Not having access to them can mean slower growth,” Lindstrom says.

Students can miss out on making progress on foundational skills too, Lindstrom says. Think of special education as building blocks. It helps kids reach grade level. And stay there.

“For a lot of our students in special education, their growth is already slower than that of their peers. And so that’s why we have the intensification, why we have intervention, and additional supports. So that they can try to progress as close to their peers without disabilities as possible,” Lindstrom says. 

Washington is sending billions of dollars to Pennsylvania’s schools. Part of it is supposed to help local districts address this year’s learning losses.

Locally, the Allentown School District says it’s reviewing the state’s COVID comp ed guidance. And will assess who needs what coming out of the closure. 

And Bethlehem Area School District officials say their plans are based on guidance that came out in the fall. And that if the state updates those rules, they’ll make adjustments. 

For parent Lisbeth Little in Montgomery County, they don’t have another COVID year in them.

“Right now, nobody’s liking how everyone’s being taught. Teachers don’t like it. Kids don’t like it. And you know, it’s the families and that and the teachers that are struggling and nobody’s saying, ‘Well, we’re gonna fix it,’” Little says. 

And it’s uncertain if she or other parents will get clear answers as summer begins. 

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