Educators, lawmakers discuss ways to offer in-person services to vulnerable students

School leaders tell members of a House subcommittee that they are most concerned about adequately meeting the needs of students with disabilities and students from low-income families when school buildings are closed.

WASHINGTON — The desire to provide essential in-person services to vulnerable students in a safe manner was the center of discussion during a House subcommittee hearing Thursday.

Students with disabilities, students with food insecurities, students without access to devices or Wi-Fi, and students at risk of abuse are the populations of students who likely struggled the most during extended school closures this spring, testified witnesses at a hearing on reopening schools hosted by the House Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee.

As schools prepare to begin the upcoming school year, lawmakers and witnesses discussed the challenges and potential solutions of serving vulnerable populations in school buildings.

Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa told subcommittee members that in the spring the district was able to distribute 15,000 hot spots, laptops, and tablets to households with no access to virtual learning. But as Hinojosa prepares for the SY 2020-21, there are many more resources his district needs, including providing internet access for more students and providing services to students with disabilities.

“That’s one of our biggest concerns,” he said. “We have a lot of robust plans for our traditional students, but our students with special needs, by definition have an individual plan … Many of the parents are now carrying the burden of doing that at home when trained professionals are the ones who do it, but we also need to be concerned about their safety.”

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told subcommittee members that state leadership has supported the safe reopening of schools by providing resources, such as professional development for teachers, personal protective equipment, and toolkits to support in-person learning. Tennessee also funded a grant to pay existing and aspiring teachers to become dually certified to teach special education. An additional grant funds the expansion of special education strategies to serve students with disabilities in remote settings, Schwinn said.

“School reopening must include clear plans for ensuring that all students have access to a quality education, regardless of the delivery format,” she said.

The lawmakers and witnesses acknowledged that safely opening school buildings to students and staff is extremely complex, especially in areas where there are increasing cases of COVID-19. There was wide consensus that school systems need to collaborate with local and state health experts on their reopening plans.

“We totally agree and honor and respect that we have to have students in the classroom learning with the teacher but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t risk lives,” said Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., said every student should be afforded the option of in-person learning. “Sadly, learning loss isn’t the only challenge students face due to school closures,” he said. “This pandemic and subsequent school closures have drastically reduced interactions between vulnerable children and trusted adults while exacerbating conditions that contribute to child abuse and neglect such as financial strain and social isolation,” Allen said. “School closures diminish educators’ abilities to serve these vulnerable students.”

Sean O’Leary, vice chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases at the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the AAP urges schools to prioritize in-person learning for students. He said there’s already evidence of the negative impacts on children — including depression, anxiety, suicidality, and increases in obesity rates — because of the extended school closures in the spring. However, schools should only reopen when it is safe to do so, he said.

“This guidance does not mean we recommend that all schools open five days a week for the start of the school year,” O’Leary said. “A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate under the current environment.”

Kara Arundel covers special education for LRP Publications.

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