MISSOULA, Mont. — Kids and parents across Montana and the nation are adjusting to remote learning, but the individualized nature of special education can make that adjustment more complex.
“Kids with disabilities are our most complex learners, so as you would expect in a pandemic when we’re struggling to figure out how to educate all kids, there’s the added challenge of educating kids who already have complex learning needs,” said Lauren Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a nonprofit launched in 2013 that advocates for students with disabilities.
Rhim said they’ve heard stories of kids who aren’t getting education services with remote learning, much like Afton Russell’s son Tristan in Missoula County. She said they’ve also heard stories of kids who have had positive experiences.
“I think the majority of students are in the middle of that,” said Rhim.
Even with a majority of students receiving education, the superintendent of public instruction in Montana said a majority isn’t enough.
“I’m looking at the outliers because if we serve all of our children then Montana has done its job,” said Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction. “If one or two children fall through the cracks and the state has not done its responsibility to these children, then we have harmed all children.”
The Montana Office of Public Instruction said they’re included in cases of children not receiving education services. They offer mediation between parents and the school. They’ll handle any legal action, too, but they say that could be at the expense of the child.
“These things take time, so if there is court involved or any kind of a legal process, there are going to be much more challenges of a break in education services and less continuity for that child,” said Arntzen.
The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools offers tips for parents of students with disabilities on their website. Rhim suggests knowing your child’s rights, being familiar with their individualized education plan and working with the school to figure out how to get services under the current circumstances.
“If a parent were to go in and say well, this is the way it was done before and it has to be done exactly that same way, you may not get the same reaction of going in and saying this is what I used to get, this is what my child used to get, these are our current realities,” said Rhim. “How do we modify this to get as much as possible for my child in order for my child to be able to learn?”
Both Rhim and Arntzen agree that parents and the school have to be in a partnership for a child with an individualized education plan to thrive.