PORTLAND, Ore. — The past school year was supposed to help George Wadell, a 21-year-old Lake Oswego student with Down syndrome, transition into independence with real-world experience. But those experiences couldn’t be replicated virtually.

His school district, unlike most, will give him those opportunities this coming school year, even though his turning 22 this September makes him too old for the state and federal governments to fund that education.

After most students with disabilities lost out on promised services during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon schools will try to make up for lost learning, a step state officials have mandated they take. But some parents and advocates worry that these actions won’t be enough.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Oregon students whose schools had issued them individualized education programs must be given extra services to compensate for the ones they were promised under that plan but didn’t receive during the past year and a half. The Oregon Board of Education issued that decision June 17.

The requirement will apply to both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.

Recovery services will be determined on a case-by-case basis, said Eric Wells, a director overseeing special education in the Office of Enhancing Student Opportunities. Some students’ plans may not change at all, and others may have complex adjustments to reach what they would have with uninterrupted school, he said.

If necessary, meetings between a student’s parents or other advocates and school district decision-makers to update the individualized plans can be facilitated and mediated by a neutral third party.

“Given the elevated role that parents have played in education over the past year, we sought to emphasize the importance of parent input in this process and the need for districts to seek and secure parent agreement as the appropriateness of the individualized COVID-19 recovery services wherever possible,” Wells said.

Parents who don’t agree that the school district’s plan does enough to get their child back on track can appeal to the state Department of Education, Wells said.

Districts must notify parents of the opportunity to meet with the district planning team to update and potentially enhance the student’s individualized plan. Some state board members in the June 17 meeting said they are worried about potential inequitable treatment of students with disabilities whose parents who want to advocate for them but don’t know the technicalities of the process.

School district officials expressed worries about funding and staff workloads. Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe said her district has lost special education teachers due to burnout in the past school year and worries that the expanded responsibility during the next two school years will stretch them thinner.

Individualized education program meetings take place once a year in most cases, which means some students may not have their regularly scheduled meeting until late next school year. Advocates worry that families who don’t have the toolbox to navigate the system and schedule a new meeting might be consulted too late.

Board members unanimously approved the new requirement, although some suggested department staffers look further into some of the concerns.

Transition services for young adults

Many students couldn’t access the education that they were entitled to during the pandemic, said Roberta Dunn, executive director of Fact Oregon, an organization that helps families navigate systems for their children with disabilities. While virtual learning may have worked for some, others spent the year practically without school, she said.

“Students experiencing disability had one of the hardest times accessing any education,” she said.

The individualized recovery plans, which her organization advocated for, will begin to address that, she said. However, she’s most concerned about 18- to 21-year-old students with intellectual disabilities, who are entitled to services even after they earn a modified or extended diploma until they turn 22.

The post-diploma help they receive, known as transition services, is meant to help students with daily living skills, vocational skills and community experiences. These experiences were not the same in their virtual form, leaving older students without training that many consider vital, Dunn said.

While the requirement to offer amped up special education services addresses and attempts to compensate for difficulties caused by the pandemic, it does not necessarily include all students with disabilities who were affected, she noted. Funding will not extend to students older than 21 who have aged out of services that they weren’t able to fully receive.

Districts can still provide transition services to students who have aged out, but the state isn’t providing any funding.

Transition services are paramount to success in adult life, Dunn said, recalling when her now-28-year-old son was part of them.

“Those students, I would say, got the shortest end of the stick,” she said. “It is such a critical time.”

State Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat whose district includes Corvallis, Albany and Philomath, used her district’s $4 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay for transition services for students in her school districts who would have otherwise aged out. No other senator dedicated their portion to the same cause. Senate Bill 747, sponsored by Gelser, would have had the state pay to serve all of Oregon’s 22- and 23-year-olds who got shortchanged on transition services. But the concept did not gain traction.

“No student should have to choose between completing their diploma goals that they have been working toward since elementary school or having the training and support that they need to prepare for adulthood and for the workforce,” she said.

Wadell, the Lake Oswego student, spent what should have been his transition year unable to learn or participate in school, said his mother, Grace Wadell. A medical diagnosis affected his quality of life, Zoom calls triggered his anxiety and he couldn’t engage with teachers or peers.

She sat with her son during virtual classes, which did not replicate the community experiences that he would have received during a non-pandemic program, such as taking public transit, cooking, doing laundry and getting internship experience.

After months of Grace Wadell and other parents advocating for their young adult children entitled to transition services, the Lake Oswego School District decided to offer up to an additional year of transition services to the 13 students who qualified. All opted in and will have an additional year for specialized recovery focused on existing, not new, individualized education program goals.

Outside of Gelser’s district and Lake Oswego, however, few if any students who aged out of transition programs will have their transition services extended past age 21.

Gabrielle Guedon, executive director of Oregon Self Advocacy Coalition, said, “It’s extremely important that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are able to learn these skills because a lot of the times we — I am one of them — we are just thrown out to the walls and not given the opportunity or support to learn because we might learn slower or not understand.”

Summer programming and enrichment

Nearly $300 million in federal relief money will fund expanded summer enrichment across the state focused on socialization, social emotional support, credit recovery and academic advancement.

Eight Portland-area school districts surveyed by The Oregonian/Oregon Live said they will offer their usual extended school year services for those students on individual education programs whose needs are profound enough that they qualify. They said they encouraged students with disabilities to participate in the summer offerings also open to students without disabilities, including classes such as robotics and circus in addition to traditional offerings like STEM and swimming.

Scarlet Mielke would have benefited from summer enrichment with students her age, said her mother, Cori Mielke. But by the time she tried to enroll the 12-year-old, spots in the Salem- Keizer school district’s 80 programs had filled up.

Socialization was the most challenging part of the pandemic for Scarlet, who has autism, Cori Mielke said. The family will have to figure out how to fill gaps that the summer program would have helped.

Districts are required to follow students’ individual education programs for anyone enrolled in any school service, but Cori Mielke worries that part of the communication may not have been explicit.

“If you’re feeling frustrated and you’re getting these emails about summer camps and they don’t specifically say they’re for students with disabilities, it might be really easy to feel a little bit forgotten,” she said.

© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.