The COVID-19 pandemic has put Heidi Whitney’s daughter in a bind.
Suddenly, the San Diego student was sleeping all day and awake all night. When in-person classes resumed, she was so impatient at times that she begged to come home early, telling the nurse that her stomach hurt.
Whitney tried to keep her daughter in class. But the teenager’s desperate attempts to get out of school escalated. She was eventually committed to a psychiatric ward, failed “pretty much everything” in school, and was diagnosed with depression and ADHD.
As she started high school this fall, she was considered eligible for special education services because her disorders interfered with her ability to learn, but school officials said it was a close call. It was hard to know how much of her symptoms were chronic or the result of mental health issues caused by the pandemic, they said.
“They put my child in a gray area,” said Whitney, a paralegal.
Schools grappling with rising student mental health needs and other challenges have struggled to determine how much of the pandemic is to blame. Are the challenges a sign of a disability that will affect a student’s learning long-term or something more temporary?
It all adds to the despair of parents trying to figure out how best to help their children. If a child does not qualify for special education, where should parents go for help?
“I feel like because he went through the pandemic and didn’t experience the normal high school, the normal middle school experience, he developed anxiety, deep depression and he didn’t learn. She didn’t learn how to be a social child,” Whitney said. “Everything turned upside down.”
Schools must explain how they will meet the needs of students with disabilities in individualized education programs, and demand for screening is high. Some schools have struggled to catch up with assessments that were delayed in the early days of the pandemic. For many, the task is also complicated by the lack of psychologists.
To qualify for special education services, a child’s school performance must suffer because of a disability in one of 13 categories, according to federal law. These include autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, developmental delays and “emotional disorders”.
It’s important not to send children who may have had a difficult time during the pandemic into the special education system, said John Eisenberg, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
“That’s not what it was designed for,” he said. “It’s really designed for kids who need specially designed instruction. It’s a lifelong learning issue, not a dumping ground for kids who may not have received the best instruction during the pandemic or have other major issues.”
In the 2020-2021 school year, about 15 percent of all public school students received special education services under federal law, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Among children age 6 and older, special education enrollment increased 2.4 percent from the previous school year, according to federal data. The figures also showed a large drop in enrollment for younger, preschool-aged students, many of whom were late returning to formal schooling. The figures varied greatly from state to state. No data available yet for last year.
While some special education directors worry the system is taking on too many students, advocates have heard the opposite is happening, with schools moving too quickly to dismiss parents’ concerns.
Even now, some children are still having assessments rejected because of a lack of staff, said Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate in Michigan. In one district, assessments stopped altogether in May because there was no school psychologist to do them, she said.
When Heather Wright approached her son’s school last fall, seeking help with the 9-year-old’s outbursts and other behavioral problems, staff suggested private testing. The stay-at-home mom from Sand Creek, Michigan called eight places. The fastest he could get an appointment was in December of this year – 14 months later.
She also suspects her 16-year-old has a learning disability and is waiting to hear back from the school about both children.
“I hear a lot of, ‘Well, everyone is worse. It’s not just yours,’” she said. “Yeah, but like, this is my kid and he needs help.”
It can be challenging to tell the difference between problems that stem directly from the pandemic and a true disability, said Brandi Tanner, an Atlanta psychologist who has been inundated with parents seeking evaluations for potential learning disabilities, ADHD and autism.
“I’m asking a lot more background questions about pre-COVID versus post-COVID, like, ‘Is this a change in functioning or was it something that was present before and just persisted or got worse?'” she said. .
Sherry Bell, a leader in the Department of Exceptional Children in the Charleston County School District in South Carolina, said she also faces this problem.
“In my 28 years in special education, you know, ruling out all of these factors is more important than ever, just because of the pandemic and the fact that kids have spent all their time at home,” he said. Bell.
The key is to have good systems in place to distinguish between a student with a lasting learning disability and one who has missed a lot of school because of the pandemic, said Kevin Rubenstein, president-elect of the Board of Special Education Administrators.
“Good school leaders and great teachers will be able to do that,” he said.
The federal government, he noted, has provided large amounts of money for COVID relief for schools to provide tutoring, counseling and other support to help students recover from the pandemic.
But advocates worry about the consequences down the line for students who don’t get the help they may need. Kids who fall through the cracks could end up with more disciplinary problems and diminished prospects for life after school, said Dan Stewart, director of education and employment attorney for the National Disability Rights Network.
Whitney, for her part, said she’s relieved her daughter is getting help, including a case manager, as part of her IEP. She will also be able to leave class as needed if she feels anxious.
“I realize a lot of kids were going through this,” she said. “I just went through COVID. Give them a break.”
Sharon Lurye in New Orleans contributed to this report. The Associated Press Education Team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.