Roughly 7 million children in the U.S. receive special education services under a decades-old federal law — or did, until the pandemic began. Many of those services slowed or stopped when schools physically shut down in spring 2020. Modified instruction, behavioral counseling, and speech and physical therapy disappeared or were feebly reproduced online, for three, six, nine months. In some places, they have yet to fully resume. For many children with disabilities, families say this disruption wasn’t just difficult. It was devastating.
Without the usual access to educators, therapists and in-person aides, these families, and many like them, say they watched their children slide backward, losing academic, social and physical skills. And now they’re demanding help, arguing to judges, state departments of education and even to the U.S. Department of Education that schools are legally required to do better by their students with disabilities. In complaints filed across the country, families say schools need to act now to make up for the vital services kids missed.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitles children with disabilities to a public education that is two things: free and “appropriate.” That means, if a child needs a speech therapist or special curriculum modifications to learn, schools must provide it.
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