Students with special needs shouldn’t become second-class Americans during a pandemic

Remote learning from home is no excuse for short-changing these students with the services they need and deserve.

SHARE Students with special needs shouldn’t become second-class Americans during a pandemic
Protesters at the Thompson Center in 2019 rally for an independent monitor to oversee special education in Chicago schools.

Protesters at the Thompson Center in 2019 called for an independent state monitor to oversee special education in Chicago Public Schools, which has a long history of shortchanging students with special needs.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools has a long history of shortchanging children with special needs. It has taken years of activism, judges’ rulings and monitoring by independent watchdogs to force progress on this front.

The district can’t be allowed to backslide now, even during a pandemic. Children with special needs deserve access to an education that is equal in quality to that of any other child.

We support a CPS policy that requires teachers and clinicians to revise learning plans for special education students to incorporate home-based remote learning. For all its limitations, remote learning is the “new normal” for now, in Chicago and across the country, and likely will continue into the fall in some fashion.

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Contrary to what the Chicago Teachers Union contends in a lawsuit filed this week challenging the CPS policy, there’s no need for a “wholesale redrafting” of Individual Education Plans. CPS is requiring, in the words of a spokesperson, only that “basic accommodations” be made to “help students adjust” to remote learning.

That’s not “impossible to accomplish,” as the CTU suit asserts, if the union and the school administration resolve to work together.

On this issue, we find ourselves in rare agreement with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She rightly declined to waive federal requirements that compel school districts to rewrite students’ IEPs whenever needed. A pandemic is a challenge, not a reason to let educators off the hook when it comes to equitable services for kids with special needs.

We understand that remote learning can be particularly challenging for students with disabilities. At school, they often require assistance from aides and clinicians. Those services can be difficult to duplicate when the kids are learning from home.

But children with disabilities don’t become second class Americans when times get tough.

“What is needed for students with disabilities is robust support while they and their families are at home balancing the challenges of remote learning,” Chris Yun, of the advocacy group Access Living, told us. “It is unfortunate to see that CPS and CTU are clashing over crucial services for these students in these unprecedented times.”

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