NYC particular training referrals plunge 57% from pre-pandemic ranges
Significantly fewer students were referred for special education evaluations last year, a 57% decrease from the year before the pandemic began, raising concerns that thousands of students have not been identified for services they may need.
In the 2020-2021 school year, 9,457 pupils were referred to evaluations to determine whether they needed more intensive care, for example smaller classes with a special education teacher or other offers such as speech therapy or occupational therapy. That’s roughly 16,000 last year and nearly 22,000 in the 2018/19 school year, the school year before the pandemic broke out, according to an annual report presented to the city council late Wednesday by the Ministry of Education.
The report, released more than two weeks after the legal deadline and just hours before a city council hearing on special education, doesn’t reveal exactly why so many students have been flagged for services.
Pandemic disruptions in the final year of school – when the vast majority of students were studying remotely – likely played an important role.
It is possible that families were overwhelmed and searched for reviews less often, or that educators were unable to spot typical clues that a student might need additional services in virtual classrooms.
The decline in school enrollment may also have played a role, as a significant proportion of referrals for special schools are in the first grades, where enrollments have declined the most year-on-year. (However, the decline in referrals for special education services far outpaced the decline in enrollments.)
“The decline in referrals likely means there are students with disabilities who have been without the help they need all year long and may continue this year without the support they need,” said Randi Levine, special education expert at Advocates for Children, a non-profit organization that helps low-income families navigate the city’s special education system.
Black students saw a disproportionate decline in service recommendations, down more than half last school year and nearly 66% since the year before the pandemic. (Black students opted for distance learning at higher prices.)
At a city council hearing on Thursday, officials from the department said the overall referral rate for special education reviews has increased this school year and is closer to pre-pandemic levels.
The city’s statistics paint a more encouraging trend line for the approximately 192,000 students with disabilities who already had individualized education programs, or IEPs, legally binding documents that identify services tailored to the needs of each student.
Almost 88% of students with disabilities received proper “program” benefits by the end of the school year, such as a small class exclusively for students with disabilities or a larger class with a mix of special and general education students, typically led by two teachers. That is almost four percentage points more than in the 2019-2020 school year and about two points more than in the school year before the outbreak of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, almost 24,000 students remained who did not receive, or received only part of, the subject teaching to which they were entitled. Because these numbers are tabulated at the end of the school year, a student who has not received adequate achievement for months could still be counted as correct achievement as long as it was achieved by the last day of school. A significantly higher proportion of schoolchildren did not receive all of the services in the middle of the last school year, as city figures show.
“We have prioritized our most vulnerable populations at every step during this crisis, and this report reflects the crucial progress we have made in supporting our students with disabilities,” said Chancellor Meisha Porter in a statement.
City officials said they had been working to improve the delivery of special education services, including closer reviews of school data to identify and fill gaps in services, according to Sarah Casasnovas, a spokeswoman for the department.
However, the report doesn’t necessarily reveal some of the most common effects the pandemic has on students with disabilities. Some students waited weeks or months before receiving an iPad from the city to do their homework, and others simply struggled to deal with special education services remotely.
To catch up with students, the city is spending nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on additional support, so each school has to offer additional small-group classes and therapy after school or on Saturdays. However, the introduction of the program has been postponed to December 6th and the first wave will only serve the students with the greatest need. It is unclear when most students with disabilities will have access to it.
About 500 schools have started an after-school or Saturday program so far, or less than a third of schools across the city, said Christina Foti, an assistant academic director who oversees special education.
“The vast majority of our schools have indicated that they will start services by the end of the month,” said Foti. “We are in the process of developing plans for each of our students with IEPs.”
Foti stated that most schools plan to offer the program through a mix of face-to-face and virtual offerings. The decision to allow schools to offer the program virtually has been criticized by some proponents, who argue that it undermines the program’s purpose of helping students who may have struggled with distance learning during the pandemic.