The COVID-19 pandemic has sent Heidi Whitney’s daughter into a tailspin.
Suddenly, the San Diego middle schooler was sleeping all day and waking up all night. When in-person classes resumed, she was sometimes so anxious that she begged to come home early, telling the nurse she had a stomach ache.
Whitney tried to keep her daughter in class. But the teenager’s desperate attempts to quit school escalated. Ultimately, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, failed “just about everything” in school, and was diagnosed with depression and ADHD.
When she started high school this fall, she was deemed eligible for special education services because her disorder interfered with her ability to learn, but school officials said it was a close call. It was unclear how chronic his symptoms were or were the result of mental health issues brought on by the pandemic, they said.
“They put my child in a gray area,” said Whitney, a paralegal.
Schools grappling with skyrocketing student mental health needs and other challenges are struggling to determine just how much the pandemic is to blame. Are the challenges a sign of a disability that will harm a student’s long-term learning, or something more temporary?
All of this adds to the desperation of parents trying to figure out the best way to help their children. If a child does not qualify for special education, where should parents go for help?
“I feel like because she went through the pandemic and she didn’t have the normal college, the normal college experience, she developed anxiety, deep depression and she didn’t did not learn. She didn’t learn how to be a social kid,” Whitney said. “Everything turned upside down.”
Schools are required to specify how they will accommodate the needs of students with disabilities in individualized education programs, and the demand for screening is high. Some schools have struggled to catch up on assessments that were delayed at the start of the pandemic. For many, the task is also complicated by the shortage of psychologists.
To qualify for special education services, a child’s academic performance must have a disability in one of 13 categories, according to federal law. They include autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, developmental delays and “emotional disturbances”.
It’s important not to send children who may have struggled during the pandemic into the special education system, said John Eisenberg, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
“That’s not what it was designed for,” he said. “It’s really designed for kids who need specially designed instructions. It’s a lifelong learning issue, not a dumping ground for kids who may not have had the best education during the pandemic or who have other major issues.
In the 2020-2021 school year, about 15% of all public school students received special education services under federal law, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Among children 6 and older, special education enrollment was up 2.4% from the previous school year, according to federal data. The figures also showed a sharp decline in enrollment for younger preschoolers, many of whom have been slow to return to formal school. The numbers varied widely from state to state. No data is yet available for the last year.
While some special education directors worry the system is accommodating too many students, advocates hear the opposite is happening, with schools moving too quickly to dismiss parental concerns.
Even now, some children still have evaluations pushed back due to understaffing, said Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan special education advocate. In one district, assessments stopped altogether in May because there was no school psychologist to do them, she said.
When Heather Wright approached her son’s school last fall asking for help with the 9-year-old’s outbursts and other behavioral issues, staff suggested private testing. The stay-at-home mom from Sand Creek, Michigan, called eight locations. The earliest she could get a date was December this year – 14 months later.
She also suspects her 16-year-old son has a learning disability and is awaiting answers from the school about the two children.
“I hear a lot of, ‘Well, everybody’s worse. It’s not just yours,” she said. “Yeah, but, like, he’s my kid and he needs some help.”
It can be difficult to tell the difference between issues that stem directly from the pandemic and true disability, said Brandi Tanner, an Atlanta-based psychologist who has been inundated with parents seeking assessments for potential learning disabilities, the ADHD and autism.
“I ask a lot more substantive questions about pre-COVID compared to post-COVID, like, ‘Is this a change in functioning or was this something that was present before and just lingered or get worse?” she said.
Sherry Bell, head of the exceptional children’s department for the Charleston County School District in South Carolina, said she also ran into the problem.
“In my 28 years of special education, you know, having to rule out all of these factors is much more important than ever, just because of the pandemic and the fact that children have been spending all this time at home,” said said Bell.
The key is to have good systems in place to distinguish between a student with a lasting barrier to learning and one who has missed a lot of school because of the pandemic, said Kevin Rubenstein, council president-elect. special education administrators.
“Good school leaders and great teachers are going to be able to do that,” he said.
The federal government, he noted, has provided large amounts of COVID relief money to schools to provide tutoring, counseling and other support to help students recover from the pandemic.
But advocates worry about the later consequences for students who don’t get the help they might need. Children who fall through the cracks could end up having more discipline problems and diminished prospects for life after school, said Dan Stewart, general counsel for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network.
Whitney, for her part, said she was relieved that her daughter was getting help, including a case manager, through her IEP. She can also leave the class if necessary if she feels anxious.
“I realize a lot of kids were going through that,” she said. “We just went through COVID. Give them a break.
Sharon Lurye in New Orleans contributed to this report. The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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