The world changed in March 2020 -- and not for the better. My son Morgan was 18. He had just been placed in a special education classroom with an amazing teacher whom he loved. He was actually starting to learn new things. And then it happened. On March 13, 2020, no more going to school in person. Virtual school was a challenge for everyone, but especially for children with special needs.
When school was in person, each morning, Morgan loved physically choosing a card that described how he was feeling that day -- happy, sad, anxious, or tired. When the teacher showed the same set of cards virtually, Morgan reached at the computer screen to choose and was so frustrated when he couldn't actually touch the cards. Instruction from the teacher was through a video and was less than an hour a day.
From March 2020 through April 2021, Morgan had virtual school for the equivalent of seven and a half months -- days when no students were allowed at school, days when his class was part-time, days when he had to stay home because someone in his classroom had COVID or when someone in his group home had COVID.
And I knew that Morgan's time was running short. When he turned 21, he would no longer be eligible for school. I wanted to find a way to get him extra school beyond his 21st birthday, so I was happy when Minnesota passed a law that provided for COVID recovery services for special education students who had lost learning opportunities as a result of virtual school. It even specifically called out that those services could go beyond a student's 21st birthday. But actually getting those services was not easy.
Here are all the steps I had to take:
Sent an email in June 2020 requesting one month of extra services for each month of virtual learning. The answer was "no" -- but that was before the law was passed.
During a regular IEP meeting in early October 2021, I requested an additional year of school for Morgan. The answer was "we're not allowed to do that." The IEP team was not aware of the new law, so I sent it to them.
Seven weeks later, I finally had a meeting with three people from the school district to address my request. They offered summer school (about 15 half days). I said that was insufficient to make up for all the lost in person time.
In January, I received the official Prior Written Notice from the school district indicating that all they were offering was summer school.
I requested a Conciliation Conference (the next technical step required in the process),
The Conciliation Conference occurred two weeks later. The same three people were in that meeting and the answer was still the same. Why was this step necessary if the participants were going to be exactly the same?
I requested mediation through the State Department of Education. It was either mediation or a more formal hearing before a judge that may have required a lawyer.
The mediation occurred eight weeks later. The same people from the school district attended, but having a mediator helped us to get a different result. We settled for summer school, one additional quarter of school and his favorite teacher coming to his house for several one-on-one sessions during the summer.
All in all, the process took more than five months, plus an incredible amount of patience and persistence. I had to use my legal research skills to find the appropriate laws and to understand all the necessary steps in this long process. I got advice from an advocate at PACER Center who really helped me organize my argument for the mediator. She also helped me by giving me encouragement and support. And I was not alone in this experience. My husband went through the same arduous process with similar result for my step-son.
I was fortunate. I imagine so many parents whose children also missed out on so much learning over the past two and a half years had no idea there was a law that allowed them to ask for more services and more time for their children. And even if they knew, following the process to get those things was challenging and time consuming. Something needs to change.