The entire world is going through an unprecedented experience right now and everybody is being forced to creatively cope with what is going on. Instead of rush hour and bus stops our mornings now start with logging on to Zoom calls and getting your kids started on their online educational resources. While this pandemic is scary and uncertain we cannot allow it to be the reason that special education takes "10,000 steps backward," according to educational advocate Stephanie Tecza. If you scroll through social media or turn on the news you have most likely have heard of the CARES Act that was signed into law on March 27, 2020. This act is responsible for the stimulus checks that you may qualify for, an expansion of unemployment, and a number of other benefits that have been made in an effort to help the country deal with and get through COVID-19. One thing that has gotten less media attention than the stimulus payments or any other part of the act is the potential to jeopardize special education.
To be more specific; what is at stake is The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the CARES Act, there is a provision that gives the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, the ability to make recommendations on whether or not states should receive waivers to be temporarily "freed" from some of their responsibilities laid out in IDEA. A thirty-day time stamp was put on DeVos's recommendations. While DeVos fought for the right to issue the waivers herself, in the end, Congress settled on her needing their approval before any waivers were issued. This is obviously very worrisome to hear, especially as a parent of a child with a social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenge. We sat down with Tecza and also a Pennsylvania mother; Deinse Beckler to learn exactly what IDEA is in the first place and hear their fears for what could possibly happen if it were to be jeopardized.
"It's a federal law that governs special education across the United States. It oversees all of the special education processes and services for families across the country," said Tecza when describing what IDEA is. She went on to explain that these groundbreaking protections (originally called EHA) were enacted in 1975 and have protected and benefited children around the country since. Tecza further elaborated that; it provides essential support and services that are to be put into place in schools. It instructs school districts on how to evaluate a student, and it defines all of the different disability categories. The act also gives school districts and parents a series of 'next steps' when it is deemed that a child requires special education services.
"A world without IDEA would be pretty dim. I think people would misunderstand kids who have mental health challenges, without that early help I am not sure that society would understand them when they grow up," said Tecza. By getting children the services and potential medication that they require at that early age they are able to learn and grow in an environment that is tailored to help them flourish, thus becoming active and productive members of society. She also mentions that before the law was introduced in 1975 a majority of children with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges were separated from other students. Tecza said that before IDEA a lot of children did not know anybody with those challenges but now they growing up together and this makes for a better societal understanding and acceptance.
Beckler, a mother of a 13-year-old child with ADHD, dyslexia, and PTSD is in complete agreement with Tecza. "We fought so hard, and for so long to get my son the services that he needs to be successful in life, and he is making great strides. It is really scary to think that we can lose access to what he needs so that he can have a promising future," said Beckler. She went on to explain that she is so proud of the progress that her son has made thus far with his specially designed instruction. Her son is now only two years behind in reading and needs to stay on track in order for him to be able to keep up with the lessons taught in his favorite subjects; history and science.
Like many parents, Beckler is worried about the idea of her son's services and protections under IDEA being halted. She is saddened to think that in a time where the entire country is using creativity to operate large companies, run small businesses, and educate many children from home that some would deem it too difficult and/or expensive to help her son keep up. We spoke to Jim Sharp of the Rehabilitation & Community Providers Association (RCPA) who is also calling for creativity to be utilized at this moment; "Lessons must be learned by the successes in the use of telehealth in the behavioral and physical health communities. While not every element of a student’s IEP may be fully met as in the classroom setting, what is needed is creativity and flexibility to meet the needs of students and consumers across the spectrum of services. Waivers that significantly change the level of care or service moves to undermine the hard-fought-for foundation of educational equality by families and advocates over the last 25 years."
"There are so many people contributing to society now that received special education in school. Doctors, scientists, and inventors. Some of the people innovating and saving us right now during this pandemic received special education and got to where they are because they were given what they needed to learn. By not providing the protections and services protected by IDEA we may lose that next generation who can help us get through any future crises. Are you willing to risk that?" asked Beckler.
Tecza and Beckler agree that this makes them fear what the future could look like even past the pandemic. "It's a slippery slope if we cany deny children who are harder to teach in this instance what's to stop us from denying them their education in other challenging circumstances?" said Beckler. "If this opens up that door to apply for waivers they [school districts] may try and continue that. It would be terrible. I think we are going down the wrong track," said Tecza. Both mothers think that this sets a very dangerous tone for the future of special education, and whether or not people deem it as essential.
The question is what can we do? A lot of people might feel like they are just one person, one parent, what can they do? Beckler had one of her favorite quotes come to mind when asked why parents should feel empowered to have their voices heard on this matter. This Margaret Mead quote explains exactly why no voice is too small.
Here at the PA Parent and Family Alliance, we encourage you to Share Your Voice with your Representatives and Senators and let them know how you feel about this matter. Not sure how to get started? Visit out our friends at the TheNational Disability Rights Network, here, for help finding your legislators and drafting an email. For other ways to easily Share Your Voice utilize tools like Resistbot on Facebook or by texting Resist to 50409 and to share this vital issue with friends and family members and urge them to do the same.