© 2023 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Data: Students With Disabilities Aren't Faring Well During The Pandemic

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
State Education Commissioner Charlene Russel-Tucker (left) and Gov. Ned Lamont talk with an educator in Haddam about schools returning as children play kickball in the background.

Kiomary Sotillo struggled to get her oldest son Christian Garcia participating in school last year.

“He just outright refused to do any online learning. He's like ‘I'm not learning anything. And it was really hard to convince him,” she said.

Christian, who has autism and ADHD, was one of the thousands of special education students who missed an excessive amount of school during the pandemic, as defined by not showing up at least 10% of the time.

As the Delta variant and high-infection rates threaten to send kids back to remote learning, students with disabilities are positioned to miss the most school unless something changes.

Last school year, one out of every four students with autism were chronically absent. That’s twice the rate compared to before the pandemic. One-in-three students with ADHD and over half of those with emotional disturbances missed excessive amounts of school.

Chronic absenteeism rates were particularly high in low-income districts like New Haven where Christian is enrolled. He didn’t have the option to take classes in-person for much of the year. In New Haven, two-thirds of students who have ADHD and half of those with autism were chronically absent last school year.

”I feel like the whole year was wasted. There was no convincing him. To him, learning happens in person,” she said. “He struggled. He really struggled.”

Photo provided by Kiomary Sotillo
New Haven student Christian Garcia has struggled academically during the pandemic.

Parents in affluent districts also saw their children wrestle to stay engaged during the pandemic.

Here's the mom of a middle school student from a well-off town in Fairfield Country whose daughter has ADHD and anxiety. We agreed to not use her name to protect her daughter’s privacy.

“We were in remote learning again, and very soon after the school year started, we were realizing that she was struggling majorly academically. It looked as if she wasn't doing homework, and she was going into a depression, and a sort of paralysis in terms of academics. Her anxiety level hit an all-time high, and she was panicking about being called on in class. There’s an element that’s kind of anxiety-inducing, where she feels everyone’s looking at her.”

A digital inventory of all the assignments she had to complete greeted her daughter every time she logged onto school, causing her to become more anxious. So her daughter started avoiding school all together.

It was painful for her mom to watch.

“She started crying and started to not do what was expected of her,” she said.

Are parents complaining?

Statewide, it’s been hard to gauge if more parents are more dissatisfied during the pandemic with the education their children with disabilities are receiving.

Last school year, the state saw a two-thirds drop in the number of complaints being filed by parents of children with special needs. State education officials wouldn’t weigh in on why there was such a big drop but Kathyrn Meyer, an attorney who works with low-income families at the Center for Children’s Advocacy says she may know why.

“The clients that we work with are the least likely to file complaints. They don't have access to understanding what their rights are,” she said. “Most people did not know what they were entitled to during this period. I think people gave districts a lot of grace, which was course warranted, but I also think that a lot of parents that thought maybe nothing, that thought maybe no legal rights were still in place.”

When the wealthy parent from Fairfield County faced barriers from her district to provide accommodations for her daughter, her family decided that instead of filing a complaint and waiting, they would just spend thousands of dollars on to get the help they needed.

“You feel a little nervous about being a squeaky wheel. You feel nervous about making any problem and you just want to make it all go away,” the mom said.

Through tears, she explained her daughter was struggling too much, and that the $5,000 she has spent so far has helped.

“She’s no longer being seen as someone just slacking off, but actually a bright child who was being kind of left behind,” she explained. “When we started with a counselor, and an executive functioning coach and all these things that we put into place she was literally a shell of the person that she is now.”

But many families can’t afford to cover these supports, hesitate filing a complaint will make things worse, or don’t have the ability to hire an attorney to help them access services federal and state law may say they are entitled to.

“Our clients are still in and have been in survival mode during this whole time. We're talking about low -income families, low-income parents and children, who are trying to fight to keep their jobs and to keep their shelter and food,” said Meyer, the attorney who represents low-income clients.

Some families choose to call The Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center for help navigating the special education labyrinth. The federal government funds Beth Reel and her team to answer those calls.

“We had a sharp drop off. We were in a crisis mode. We were having this thing happen to us that we had never experienced before. What we found was families were completely overwhelmed, and they just did not have the bandwidth to pick up that phone or send that email to try to figure out what was going to happen for their child in school.”

Education advocates and experts suspect the drop off is happening nationwide given all the trauma families are facing during the pandemic. In addition to the drop-off in complaints and call, and the uptick in chronic absenteeism rates, there is also no explanation in the drop of students enrolled in school at all.

“I think everyone is aware that something happened and something big happened here. Students have generally basically disappeared. You know districts were not able to connect with that were absent, they don't know if these students have moved. They don't know if you know, perhaps a parent passed away and these students have gone to live in another district. And it's the numbers are, are talking quite honestly,” said Deborah Dorfman, the executive director of Disability Rights Connecticut.

State education officials say it’s difficult to make broad conclusions about the delivery of special education during the pandemic. This week, however, it became clear just how far behind these students are falling.

“Local school districts have really made herculean efforts to collaborate with parents to be able to address those issues. You know, it's hard to kind of give a broad brush, sort of state of affairs on this, because each child's individual situation is so different,” said Bryan Klimkiewicz, director of special education at the State department of Education.

Tests scores offer glimpse of learning loss

This week, however, it became clear just how far behind these students are falling.

Only 7% of children with special education needs who were learning from home last year were where they should be academically in Reading and writing and 4% in Math, standardized test scores show. Students attending school predominantly in-person fared much better.

The state’s child advocate and other civil rights groups have been calling on the state for months to do more than just offer guidance.

“The numbers are pretty jaw dropping. You'll see upwards of 60 to 80% of kids with certain disabilities are chronically absent in certain districts,” said Sarah Eagan, the leader of the Office of the Child Advocate, a state watchdog agency that first requested these absenteeism rates.

Eagan wants the department to regularly collect and publicize the absenteeism rates by disability and district and to convene community organizations to create action steps for the state and districts to improve things. Meyer, the attorney who represents low-income families from the Center for Children’s Advocacy, wants the state to do systemic reviews of the special education districts are providing during the pandemic.

“Come to a conclusion that XYZ needs to happen to remedy this problem, if indeed there is a problem. We would be looking to the state do this in a more authoritative way to show different districts, ‘hey all, this work has been done to really go through this fact-finding process, and we’re coming up with a plan that we think will really make it better and we expect you to carry out this plan,” she said.

But for now, the Lamont administration seems to be focused on keeping schools open as the best path to improve things for these learners.

“ I think we learned last year there's no substitute for in person education. I think we made every effort possible to make it easier for people to learn remotely especially during the worst days of the pandemic fall but right now we're doing everything we can to convince parents that their kids can go to our school safely; kids wearing masks teachers being vaccinated. That's what our priorities are,” said Lamont.

Back in New Haven, Sotillo son Christian graduated high school during the pandemic, but because he has a disability federal law require he be provided services to help him transition into a career. He has signed up to take courses on how to become a plumber. He is still waiting to hear if those courses will be in-person.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas was an investigative reporter with Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project from July 2021 until August 2022.
Jim Haddadin is a data journalist for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer for NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.