Parents, advocates say special ed services for pandemic recovery are hard to come by

Lily Altavena
Detroit Free Press

The Michigan Department of Education started using a new phrase last summer to describe the help schools could give students with disabilities who fell behind in virtual school: recovery services. 

The services could include tutoring, additional therapy or summer programming. 

“Recovery services,” however, sounds like another, more established special education phrase: compensatory education, meant to address when a school has failed to provide a student special education services to which they’re entitled. 

There’s a key difference: Compensatory education is mandated by law. Recovery services are not.

Students across the country are playing catch-up. But for many with disabilities, the learning missed over the last year is felt more deeply. Many lost out on learning because schools couldn’t — or wouldn’t — provide the services to which the students are entitled.

Advocates working with families say too few know about recovery services to ask for them — and making those services optional for schools gives them a reason to deny families. Parents say navigating the system to get the extra help has been a complicated and sometimes fruitless endeavor.

“It was kind of a nightmare,” Elizabeth McGauley, the mother of a son with dyslexia, said.

To get their children back on track, families are staring down a complex special education system. Because recovery services aren’t mandated, whether students receive them varies from district to district.

While families can still lodge a formal complaint with the state in an effort to receive mandated compensatory education, the process can take several months and may require expensive legal help. 

Heather Eckner, with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said parents have told the organization they feel like they were misled when they asked their district about recovery services, only to be denied. They don’t realize that the services aren’t mandated.

“We get calls … that are like, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening,'” she said. “That leads to a lot of the struggles that families have … when you can’t figure out how to access what you think your child needs.” 

What are recovery services? 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities are guaranteed what’s called a Free Appropriate Public Education. For some students with disabilities, getting that education takes extra services, like specialized instruction. 

If a student isn’t receiving agreed-upon services, they’re eligible for compensatory education. Usually, compensatory education comes about after a formal complaint is made to the state.

Recovery services are a product of the pandemic. Early on, the U.S. Department of Education released special education guidance, which mentioned that schools may have to determine whether a student should receive compensatory services if the school couldn’t provide them with services remotely. 

By coming up with a new term for recouping academic loss in its guidance, Eckner believes the state was trying to avoid a conversation about compensatory education. 

“Recovery services really came about because schools did not want to touch compensatory education,” Eckner said.

Teri Rink, the director of the Office of Special Education at the state Department of Education, said the agency used the phrase “recovery services” in a document last summer in guidance to schools, anticipating some Michigan students would lag academically.

“When we started talking about recovery services, it was more in the spirit of good faith, respecting that kids probably weren’t with each other to interact in numbers of ways or they couldn’t have like spontaneous interaction,” she said.

For example, Rink said a student who goes to speech therapy and struggles with articulating certain words may also benefit from a summer learning program where they could have more opportunities to talk with other students. 

The department envisioned the optional services as a way to give students an extra academic “boost,” she said, to address learning loss sustained because of the pandemic. The recommendation did not come with money to help fund such programming and Rink acknowledged that schools did not have to provide recovery services.

“Parents can request them but districts are not required to provide them,” Rink said. 

While compensatory education is mandated, the legal assistance that may be required to get it can be a barrier for most families, Eckner said.

Marcie Lipsitt, founder of the Michigan Alliance for Special Education, said the past year has been devastating for students in need of special education. For example, students with ADHD have felt lost in remote learning. 

“I’ve had so many calls from parents of kids with ADHD that are failing classes,” she said. “Getting started on work can be difficult to painful, completing assignments, turning them in, knowing how to turn them in.” 

‘Semester of lost time’

McGauley’s son, a freshman in Lapeer Community Schools, is trying to make up for a “semester of lost time” by tutoring every week. 

He needs services outlined through an Individualized Education Program to learn with his classmates. Among the accommodations in his plan: a reduced workload, more time on tests as well as audio versions of books and textbooks.

But virtual learning came with limited services. McGauley said a teacher told her reducing her son’s workload by the amount in his IEP wasn’t possible in online school. He didn’t receive the audio versions of books. Tools he needed in math weren’t provided, she said.

A spokesperson with Lapeer Community Schools did not respond to a request for comment.

This semester, McGauley’s son is being tutored for six hours a week, in an effort to help him catch up. The tutoring came only after the mother haggled with the school district for services, listing in an email all the accommodations not provided to her son. 

Renee Boogren’s son, Joseph, attends school in Troy. Joseph uses a communication device, has autism and a seizure disorder. At 25, he is a year away from aging out of the state’s public education system. At the onset of the pandemic, the sudden change in routine was jarring for Joseph, Boogren said.

“He is used to being busy,” she said. “Trying to figure out how that works virtually is really difficult.” 

Boogren doesn’t know if he’ll be granted another year, but does not feel like her son received the services he needed this school year, particularly when he is due to transition into the workforce. 

“I thought the whole idea of education is to prepare kids for life outside of the classroom,” she said.

Families: How to ask for recovery services

Advocating in an IEP meeting or asking for more services can be overwhelming, particularly for parents and caregivers new to navigating the special education system. 

“Many people don’t know how to question, or feel comfortable questioning what’s being advised and so they don’t even know the full range of options for their child,” said Colleen Allen, president of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. 

Eckner said if parents or caregivers are interested in recovery services, the best way to approach the conversation is by calling a meeting with their child’s IEP team.

In the meeting, the parent should be prepared to explain what’s led them to believe their child needs recovery services, with specifics, for example: “My child is now failing classes when they weren’t before.” 

If the request is denied, she suggests asking the team to provide a written notice, including “rationale with evidence to support your reasoning for why you’re not agreeing to what I’ve asked this team to consider, or what I’ve requested.” 

Complaints that result in compensatory education are more involved. Those formal complaints first require a state investigation. The state has 60 days to issue findings. The Michigan Alliance for Families has more information on how disputes work.

But the complaints come with no guarantees.

“Just finding a district noncompliant does not automatically mean that a child is entitled to comp ed,” Rink said. “Just because your child may have missed something doesn’t mean that the district now owes you something, there’s a standard that has to be demonstrated in the extent that a child was individually impacted.” 

For McGauley, the state’s system has always been taxing, even before the pandemic, requiring parents like her to continually fight for her child’s rights.

“It’s just an uphill battle. You can’t get anything done in this state,” she said. 

Contact or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.