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Parents Of Special Education Students File Lawsuits Over Poor Remote Education

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There is little debate that months of distance learning have been difficult for America's students. For many of the nation's more than 7 million special education students, the consequences have been devastating. Several new lawsuits are aimed at improving the situation for these kids. Those lawsuits are likely to face challenges as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Vanessa Ince's daughter Alexis has a rare chromosomal abnormality, as well as autism. Ince says when COVID closed their school in Maui...

VANESSA INCE: Alexis regressed so severely. You know, she was previously, I would say, 95% potty-trained. And she started wetting herself and - oh, it's devastating.

KAMENETZ: Alexis, who is 10 1/2, especially missed her classmates, her mother says. She went back to crawling instead of walking and stopped trying to use her communication device.

INCE: She wouldn't sit still for more than 15 seconds. She wandered around the house aimlessly. You know, she just looked flat and empty and...

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

INCE: ...Not really there.

KAMENETZ: Ince and her husband are suing to get Hawaii's Department of Education to pay for the services Alexis needs. The department did not respond to NPR's request for comment. Keith Peck is Ince's attorney and has also filed the suit seeking class-action status for special education students across the state who claim their individualized education plans were not followed due to the pandemic. A similar suit filed in New York City claims plaintiffs in 20 states and growing. Peck says that because Hawaii is a single statewide school district, it makes it easier to try to join students' complaints together into one claim.

KEITH PECK: We want a systemic approach to address people's need for compensation.

KAMENETZ: Advocates and attorneys who specialize in special education say that across the country, remote learning did not work very well for many students with disabilities. Occupational, physical and speech therapists, for example, often touch students to guide them, and there aren't good substitutes for that over video chat. Alexander Campbell is a 14-year-old with autism. He advocates for his fellow special education students in the state of Virginia with a group called the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. He says the pandemic has made existing inequalities worse.

ALEXANDER CAMPBELL: Students aren't receiving equitable services during regular, you know, normal schooling time. And now that it's in the pandemic, it's even worse to the point where the school systems are trying to convince students and parents not even to receive services at all.

KAMENETZ: When Campbell's high school closed down, they sent his parents a letter dated April 16 asking to amend his individualized education plan to suspend certain services. Campbell's family refused to sign the letter. His school did not respond to a request for comment. But Julie Mead, who studies special ed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says there's a potential problem with these suits.

JULIE MEAD: Students with disabilities require programming that is special, right? That's the whole point - special education.

KAMENETZ: For the very reason that each of these students is different and needs different services, it may be hard to get courts to recognize them as a class, Mead says. Instead, states and districts may be overwhelmed with individual special education complaints, which ironically could delay decision-making. And yet, Wanda Blanchett, the dean of the education school at Rutgers, says, these suits and complaints are a new step in a longtime struggle that intersects with issues of race, class and English-speaking status.

WANDA BLANCHETT: We're also seeing that COVID is having a disproportionate impact on certain students.

KAMENETZ: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued guidance in March urging flexibility under federal law during school shutdowns. She announced the special education law shouldn't stand in the way of the shift to online learning and that for students who missed out on therapies, for example, they should be re-evaluated in the fall and receive compensatory services if necessary. Blanchett says it's clear that districts need to do better.

BLANCHETT: What we did last March is a stop-gap measure. It's not sufficient for this fall.

KAMENETZ: Blanchett and other experts say that regardless of the outcomes, these suits express a very real feeling among families that they need schools to step up in taking care of students with disabilities. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "IT IS WHAT IT IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.