Many children are struggling. Is special education the answer?

Schools facing soaring students’ mental health needs and other challenges have struggled to determine how much to blame for the pandemic. Is the challenge a sign of disability that will interfere with student learning in the long term, or something more temporary?

The COVID-19 pandemic has left Heidi Whitney’s daughter confused.

Suddenly the San Diego high school student was sleeping all day and awake all night. When in-person classes resumed, he was so anxious that he begged to go home early, telling the nurse his stomach hurt.

Whitney tried to keep her daughter in class. But teenagers’ desperate bids to drop out of school are increasing. Eventually, he was admitted to a psychiatric ward, flunked “just about everything” in school and was diagnosed with depression and ADHD.

When he started high school this fall, he was deemed eligible for special education services, because his disorder interfered with his ability to learn, but school officials said it was a close call. It’s hard to know how chronic the symptoms are or the consequences of the mental health problems caused by the pandemic, they said.

“They put my son in a gray area,” said Whitney, a paralegal.

Schools facing soaring students’ mental health needs and other challenges have struggled to determine how much to blame for the pandemic. Is the challenge a sign of disability that will interfere with student learning in the long term, or something more temporary?

It all 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 because he’s going through a pandemic and he’s not having a normal middle school experience, a normal high school experience, he’s having anxiety, he’s having major depression and he’s not studying. He didn’t learn how to be a social kid,” Whitney said. “Everything is spinning in his head.”

Schools are required to explain how they will meet the needs of students with disabilities in the Individualized Education Program, and the demand for screening is high. Some schools struggled to catch up on delayed assessments in the early days of the pandemic. For many people, this task is also complicated by the shortage of psychologists.

To qualify for special education services, a child’s school performance must suffer from 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 disorders.”

It’s important not to send children who may have experienced a difficult time 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 children who need specially tailored instruction. This is a matter of lifelong learning, not a dumping ground for children who may not have had the best lessons during the pandemic or 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 aged 6 and over, special education enrollments were up 2.4% compared to the previous school year, according to federal data. The figures also show a large decline in enrollment for younger preschool-age students, many of whom are slow to return to formal schooling. The amount varies greatly from state to state. There is no data for the past year yet.

While some special education directors worry the system is taking on too many students, advocates hear the opposite is happening, with schools moving too fast to ignore parents’ concerns.

Even now, some children are still experiencing evaluation delays due to staff shortages, said Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate in Michigan. In one district, evaluations stalled completely in May because there were no school psychologists to conduct them, he said.

When Heather Wright approached her son’s school last fall seeking help for her 9-year-old’s temper tantrums and other behavioral problems, the staff suggested self-testing. The stay-at-home mom from Sand Creek, Michigan, called eight places. The earliest he can get an appointment is in December this year – a full 14 months later.

He also suspects his 16-year-old son has a learning disability and is awaiting answers from the school about his two children.

“I hear a lot: ‘Yeah, everyone is worse off. It’s not just yours,’” he said. “Yes, but, apparently, this is my son and he needs help.”

It’s hard to tell the difference between a problem stemming directly from a pandemic and an actual disability, said Brandi Tanner, an Atlanta-based psychologist who has been inundated with parents seeking evaluations for potential learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism.

“I ask more background questions about pre-COVID versus post-COVID, like, ‘Was this a change in function or was it something that was there before and just stuck or got worse?’” she says.

Sherry Bell, a leader in the Department of Special Children in the Charleston County School District in South Carolina, says she has this problem too.

“In my 28 years in special education, you know, having to put all of those factors aside is more of a consideration than ever, just because of the pandemic and the fact that kids are spending a lot of time at home,” Bell said.

The key is having good systems in place to differentiate between students with lasting learning disabilities and students who have missed a lot of school due to the pandemic, said Kevin Rubenstein, president-elect of the Special Education Administrators Council.

“Good school leaders and great teachers will be able to do that,” he said.

He noted that the federal government has provided large sums of COVID relief money for schools to offer tutoring, counseling and other support to help students recover from the pandemic.

But advocates are concerned about the consequences for students not receiving the help they may need. Children who slip through the cracks can end up with more disciplinary problems and reduced life prospects after school, said Dan Stewart, acting attorney for education and employment for the National Disability Rights Network.

Whitney, for her part, said she was relieved her daughter was getting help, including a case manager, as part of her IEP. He will also be able to leave class as needed if he gets anxious.

“I realized that a lot of kids go through this,” she says. “We just got past 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. AP is fully responsible for all content.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.