America’s public school system is arguably one of our nation’s greatest democratic achievements. The pandemic has only reinforced the importance of schools as the collective centers where we attend to students’ academic, physical, emotional, and social needs, including for students with disabilities.
With most school buildings across the country closed, the challenges we currently face should not undermine what we’ve accomplished over the last 60 years to protect students with disabilities. Instead, we must take a collaborative approach to the challenges laid bare. To do so, students, parents, teachers, and school officials must align ourselves together so that we can provide the necessary services and support to students with disabilities in the uncertain weeks and months ahead.
In Nebraska, as in the rest of the nation, families are concerned that children’s special needs are going unmet in this disrupted school environment—rightly so in many cases. Parents and advocates know that students will be hurt by the lack of individual and collective services. Schools are struggling to meet legal requirements that guarantee special-needs students are properly served.
It’s worth remembering how far we’ve come.
Consider my family’s story. In a very small rural community in Nebraska, my Uncle Eldon was born with Down syndrome. He was the joy of my grandparents’ life. Although Eldon passed away months before I was born, his presence in my life was real.
Eldon could not nurse as a newborn. The doctor told my grandmother, Helen, that he would die within days. My grandmother’s instinct took over. It wouldn’t be the last time she defied the odds.
As Eldon grew up, my paternal grandparents celebrated birthday after birthday. School officials said that there was little that people like Eldon could accomplish in the classroom. He was one of many students who was denied educational opportunities. My grandmother insisted that Eldon deserved an education. It was not up for dispute. Grandma, who only had an 8th grade education herself, organized several families in the area to buy a small house and run a school well before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1975.
In Nebraska during the late 1950s and early 1960s, special-needs education was driven by the demands of engaged parents and families. I can imagine how demanding my grandmother was.
I’ve only seen silent footage of that school, where eight to 10 students from the area were taught for a couple years. My Uncle Eldon can bring a smile to my face even today as I watch him laughing and dancing in the footage. That right to an education that was so obvious to my grandmother remains so obvious to me.
My grandmother is on my mind constantly right now.
Education—dare I say “school”—is not just a place but a responsibility that we must uphold as a nation. Federal, state, and local education leaders; policy advocates; and policymakers must embrace a commitment to serve special-needs students, especially in the face of great challenges.
Now is a perfect moment for positive change, to get better at connecting with parents and families. Instead of running from this moment in fear of litigation or reprisal, we should be running forward to ensure that principles of equity are more fully realized.
No one has perfect solutions immediately. Nevertheless, I pray we have the energy to meet the challenge. I pray we take this opportunity to work together to find a collective passion to resolve and overcome the barriers to providing special education services and protect the principles of equity established in the IDEA. Now is the time to think like allies, not adversaries. This will take ongoing cooperation, to address educational needs as best we can now and to recover the time lost.
Specifically, schools and parents should open lines of communication and share the resolve to address each child’s needs and balance those needs with the difficult reality we now face. Although statutory and regulatory timelines are important, more important is open dialogue and earnest efforts to meet each student’s unique needs. This effort matters both on the part of school officials and parents or guardians who want what is best for their children.
In Nebraska, we are meeting regularly with several of our disability advocates and have also asked our schools to submit continuity-of-learning plans for the remainder of the school year that ask two basic questions: 1) How do you plan to serve students? and, 2) How do you plan to serve students with disabilities? These two questions are intended to make this plain and simple. We both understand the challenge but expect local leaders to address the needs of students with disabilities.
Like all states, Nebraska is realizing that there will need to be compensatory educational opportunities and new efforts to meet each child’s needs. We need more accessible digital and remote-learning opportunities and we need to scale such resources quickly. It is time for us all to channel my grandmother and ask, “How can we solve this problem right now for students with disabilities?”
Matthew L. Blomstedt is the Nebraska commissioner of education and the Council of Chief State School Officers’ board president-elect.