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  • Writer's picturePeter Doehring

Case closed: Many youths with disabilities WERE denied the extra year needed to recoup from COVID

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

At least 1500 parents of 18 to 21 year-olds likely believed their youth needed another year to catch up; few if any IEP teams awarded it

Part of our case for extending Act 66 challenges claims by educators that all special education students impacted by the pandemic could have used their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to access a year of learning. In this post, we present detailed analyses of new data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) that indicate that many parents of youths with more significant disabilities believe that they needed another year to recoup progress lost to COVID, but few - if any - were awarded an extra year of schooling through the IEP process. Combined with other evidence from earlier posts, we now consider our case closed and the verdict is in: many parents - at least 1500 - were effectively denied the extra schooling they believed their 18-, 19-, 20, and 21 year-old youth needed to recover from COVID. This created an unreasonable burden on parents of these youths that effectively discriminated against them on the basis of disability. The only solution? Start now by granting those aging out this June - and ideally next June - an extra year by extending Act 66 through bills now before the Senate (SB 1276) and the House (HB 2674).

Our case up to this point

We have already described in detail the barriers that parents face when seeking to demonstrate lack of progress through the IEP process - we concluded that it was completely unrealistic to expect parents to recoup ANY progress lost to COVID through the IEP process. We have also described how, in any case, many youths with more significant levels of Intellectual and Developmental Disability (I/DD) would have already exhausted options that IEP teams use to address concerns about progress before COVID hit.

There is another critical factor: parents will soon become completely unable to use the IEP process to recoup progress lost to COVID. Parents can only seek additional time or services to make up for progress or service lost within the past two years from the point at which they knew - or should have known - there was a problem. Beginning in September 2022, parents begin to lose the opportunity to raise concerns dating before September 2020 - just when many schools began to re-open. Parents must therefore act quickly - before the clock runs out - to raise concerns about the loss of progress first noticed when their child returned to school. This simply complicates the already complex (and onerous) task of using the IEP process to argue for more schooling. Legislative action will become the only way to recoup schooling.

Our new analyses of PDE data

These new analyses were based on data specifically requested regarding the breakdown of 21 year-olds eligible for Act 66 relief, and data regarding the December 2021 student counts for different education categories. These data were obtained following a Right to Know request. For these analyses, we group those categorized with I/DD, Multiple Disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Autism under I/DD.

1) About one third of 17 year-olds with I/DD stay in public school until they age out at 21. An earlier post described trends in the number of students with IEPs from 17 through 21. We noted a dramatic decrease of 98% from age 17 through 20 in the number of students with IEPs in categories not related to I/DD, reflecting that many leave school to pursue other options. In contrast, those in I/DD-related categories dropped by only 68% over this same period. We interpret this as reflecting that there are fewer options for them, and that about one-third need as much time in public school as possible because of their more significant level of disability.

This figure illustrates these trends in I/DD-related categories for each cohort of 17 year-olds, beginning with the December 2014 student counts. Each cohort is indicated by its own colored line, with the year of data collection along the bottom. For example, the 2014 cohort of 17 year-olds (in green) decreases steadily from about 3500 in 2014 to about 250 when they are ready to age out in 2018. These patterns are very consistent, as reflected in the almost perfectly parallel decreases in enrollment between 2014 and 2020. We can also note a steady increase in the number of 17 year-olds (from 3500 in 2014 to 4400 in 2021).

These analyses reveal a quirk in the PDE data: these counts are based on the age of students on December 1 of that year. As a result, the number of 21 year-olds listed here is an undercount of the total number of 21 year-olds enrolled. This represents only one-quarter (e.g., 3 months worth) of those in their final year of school, because three quarters will celebrate their 21st birthday between December 2 and August 31st of the following year. We have reviewed other data that suggest that almost all 20 year-olds with IEPs stay through age 21.

2) Almost one-half of parents of 21 year-old youths with I/DD took the extra year offered under Act 66 to recoup progress lost to COVID. Our analyses indicate that approximately 560 of the 590 students who took the extra year under Act 66 - more than 95% - were in I/DD-related special education categories. This represents about 44% of 21 year-olds with I/DD that year.

Of course, other factors may be at play. For example, some parents may have elected to take the extra year because there were no programs available to their youth as adults - the gap in funding and programs for adults with I/DD is well-established. This would suggest that these numbers over-estimate the actual number of parents concerned.

We believe this is more likely to under-estimate the proportion of parents concerned about progress lost to COVID. Parents were given less than two weeks notice last year to elect to extend their child’s time in public school; some parents may have believed their child needed another year of schooling but did not know of - or perhaps did not understand - the option offered to them. Other parents may have been concerned about progress but did not want to disrupt plans already in place for adult services.

3) We can find no evidence that a meaningful number of 18-, 19-, or 20 year-olds were actually granted an extra year of schooling through their IEP teams.

The December 2021 student counts allow us to see whether a significant number of parents were able to use the IEP process to get an additional year of special education to recoup progress lost to COVID. We know that the parents of about 560 21 year-old students were so concerned that they took advantage of the extra year of schooling offered through Act 66 in July 2021. It is reasonable to expect that a significant number of parents of 18-, 19-, and 20 year-olds to be equally concerned that their youth needed an extra year of schooling.

But when we add trend lines to capture the pattern of changes in enrollment between December 2014 and December 2020, no such shift is evident in the December 2021 data (see figure below). This suggests that few if any parents of 18-, 19-, or 20 year-old youths gained an extra year through the IEP process. The number of 18-, 19- and 20 year-olds at each age in December 2021 is perfectly consistent with previous years.

Consider the 17 year-olds with IEPs in I/DD related categories in the 2018 (purple) cohort. Only 1386 of these students were still in school in December 2021 as 20 year-olds, a number that is perfectly consistent with the trend noted through earlier years. Contrast this with the number of 21 year-olds (circled in red) noted in December 2021. This number (630) is about 2.2 times greater than would have been predicted from previous years. Why? Because it includes students who are staying an additional year through Act 66.

4) We estimate that at least 1500 parents were denied the extra year they felt their transition-aged youth with I/DD needed to recoup progress lost to COVID. There are several assumptions we make in deriving these estimates

  • The proportion of parents who took an extra year through Act 66 provides a baseline. Thus, we would expect at least one-half of parents of transition-aged youth with I/DD to be concerned enough about the progress their youth lost to seek another year of public school.

  • It is especially difficult for youth with I/DD to recoup progress lost. Recouping progress requires more than catching up to where you were (in this case, before COVID hit); it requires catching up to where you would have been had COVID never occurred. It therefore requires a period of accelerated learning (e.g., occur at a faster rate than normal). But by definition, youths with I/DD learn at slower rates than others, limiting the potential pace of accelerated learning.

  • we must take into account the slow return of community-based training: In a previous post, we described a best-case scenario in which it took two years for community-based training to return to pre-pandemic levels. For youths who are at least two years behind by March 2022, it can be very difficult to virtually impossible to recoup the two years lost. For example, we might realistically imagine new and intensive programs of training and support that could help some 18 year-olds with I/DD accomplish 5 years of learning within the 3 years they have left. But it seems wholly unrealistic to expect a 20 year old to accomplish 3 years of learning in a little more than 15 months. We therefore believe that every 20- and 21 year-old, most 19 year-olds, and some 18 year-olds would require an additional year to make up the progress lost. Using the 560 parents who requested an extra year in 2021 as a baseline, we calculate that at least 1500 youths need the extra year to make up progress lost with respect to community-based training.

These data provide still more confirmation that requiring parents of those with disabilities to rely on the IEP process to obtain an extra year constitutes discrimination on the basis of disability. We understand why special educators suggested that the IEP process could get youths with disabilities the time they needed to recoup progress lost to COVID - that is what the IEP is intended to do! But the inherent complexities of the IEPs, combined with the lack of clear guidance following COVID, created impossible barriers for parents. These data provide evidence that the impact was significant; many transition-aged youths with disabilities were effectively denied a important benefit offered freely to others.

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