Looking Out for kids with Special Needs

A girl with down syndrome is in a classroom with her teacher. She is happily playing with a tablet computer while being watched by her teacher.(Getty)
Teacher helping student with disability using face mask.(Getty)

The pandemic's tentacles have reached all segments of American society. The amounts and kinds of pain caused by the deadly virus are not fully quantifiable. The impacts will be as long-lasting as they are certain.

While help is needed in all directions, special priority must be given to preclude permanent derailment of the next generation's educational competency.

There is widespread agreement that students have suffered — some less, some more — as a result of school lockdowns, shifts in instruction protocols, off-site learning, inequity in access to the tools of learning. One group at great risk for going off the rails is students with special needs, especially students who are on the brink of aging out of the state's educational system. For many of those students hovering at the edge of adulthood, the past months have added up to, simply put, less than what they need.

While every youth has unique requirements in the educational process, there are those with documented problems that entitle them to "special education." Stories abound of parents pleading with schools for the full measure of educational assistance to which their special-needs children are entitled by law and by morality.

Teachers and administrators may be attempting their best to stand solid on shifting sands during the COVID-19 crisis. But it is inarguable that today's best is not equal to a pre-pandemic best.

Pennsylvania state Reps. Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, and Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, see this. They've crafted state legislation that would extend special education eligibility for students who have a certified "individualized education program" — better known as an IEP.

There are more than a thousand students across the state who are in their final year of eligibility for "transition assistance." That assistance, which helps a student make a successful shift to adult life, normally ends between the ages of 18 and 21. But these past months have been lost for some students with an IEP. Transition planning includes real-life skills that apply academics in ways such as reading a menu or a bus schedule; financial budgeting and purchasing; job hunting and resume crafting.

"Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be unconscionable to allow these students to age out of this program without full access to its benefits," Mr. Miller remarked in an announcement of the legislation he has co-authored. In later correspondence, he elaborated: "Despite best efforts, this program has not functioned well during the pandemic, and the right thing to do for those students, their families, and the long-term goals embedded in the program, is to extend eligibility for those interested."

The bill would ensure no student enrolled in school with an active IEP when the governor first declared the COVID-19 state of emergency would lose his or her eligibility for services until 12 months after the expiration of the emergency declaration. That would leave it up to the parents and students to continue in the state special education program, even if the student would have reached the maximum age for public education.

Teaching children during a pandemic is a struggle. Educating children with special needs is even more challenging. A simple adjustment in the age-out limits for students with documented special needs is reasonable, fair and an investment in the next generation of adults. Pennsylvania's lawmakers should back this initiative and the governor should give it a public endorsement.

This article was originally published on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.