Disability rights advocates are pushing for extra services for special education students to compensate for learning loss during the pandemic.

Students may be entitled to what are known as compensatory services if the required therapies and instruction in their individualized education programs, or IEPs, were not fully provided during virtual learning or other pandemic-related disruptions over the past two years.

Many families are in the beginning stages of qualifying for compensatory services, said Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network, an umbrella group for the federally mandated protection and advocacy organizations in each state.

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“There’s going to be an incredible need for supports for students with disabilities,” Hager said. “It could take a couple of years for the students to catch up. This is not a quick-fix type of thing.”

Compensatory services like therapies and tutoring must take place outside of regular school hours. Some students could have their eligibility for special education services extended by a year or two after they age out of the public school system, Hager said.

“Adding more services is going to have to be individualized depending on their capacity and how much time they might need and where they are in the educational process,” he said.

Parents in any district should first work with their child’s IEP team to determine if they qualify for compensatory services, advocates said.

“Parents should look at the progress reports they receive from the school and compare those with the rate of progress a student made pre-pandemic,” said Selene A. Almazan, legal director at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPAA, which advocates for the rights of students with disabilities and their families. “At a more basic level, a parent knows if a child has not made expected progress on IEP goals — there may be deficits in speech for example … a parent may note that a child’s fluency in reading is not what was expected.”

While the vast majority of parents say their children with disabilities experienced learning loss during the pandemic, only one-quarter said they were offered compensatory services from their school districts, according to a fall 2021 COPAA survey.

Parents can request new evaluations or assessments in skills they believe were impacted by remote learning or the loss of services during the pandemic, Almazan said.

If the IEP team does not adequately address the problem, parents can reach out to their state’s Parent Training and Information Center or Community Parent Resource Center to help navigate the next steps including due process under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

One group that represents special education administrators has not seen any uptick in complaints or requests for due process since the pandemic started.

“What I like to think is happening is school districts are following the supports and guidance provided early on — communicating effectively, accessing online services, documenting those services and keeping data,” said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education.

“There could be situations in which compensatory services might be owed to some students,” Wolfram said. “IEP teams need to say, ‘What do we need to do because we missed a step?'”

The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance to schools throughout the pandemic regarding the need to provide compensatory services as appropriate even during remote learning and other challenges. The latest guidance issued in February was prompted by an increase in complaints to the department’s Office for Civil Rights over failures to provide free appropriate public education, an agency spokesperson told Disability Scoop at the time.

Multiple school districts nationwide are under investigation by the federal office for possible violations of federal anti-discrimination laws involving special education services during the pandemic. In April, the office cited the Los Angeles Unified School District for failing to follow students’ education plans during remote learning, among other violations. In its correction plan, the school district agreed to provide compensatory services to any students with disabilities whose education plans were not met during the pandemic.

While the federal government’s coronavirus relief packages include funding for compensatory services, a shortage of special education teachers is making the situation more challenging, Wolfram said.

The starting point for parents and educators should be each child’s current situation, she added.

“We know that a number of our students, especially those with significant needs, need more than they needed in the past because of lost instructional time,” Wolfram said. “It’s overwhelming and not appropriate to think of compensatory services as making up every hour that was missed. The purpose needs to be the child sitting in front of us — if that’s more speech, more occupational therapy, it will take some time to recoup.”