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COVID's staggering toll on community-based training for youths with disabilities

Transition-age youths likely lost another 1-2 days worth of community-based training for every day lost because schools were closed.

COVID has had an especially significant impact on those youths with disabilities approaching the critical transition into adulthood. In fact, the closer that these youths are to aging out of public school, the more vulnerable they were. Why? To become ready to live and work and be engaged in their community as adults, these youths MUST learn IN the community. Their community IS their school, so when community settings are closed, the education of transition-aged youths with disabilities slows to a crawl.

So COVID’s impact increased exponentially for these youths because these community settings remained inaccessible to them long after school re-opened. While COVID closed all schools to in-person instruction from mid-March until at least September 2020, it kept many community settings closed to youths with disabilities throughout much of the 2020-21 school year, and sometimes more! We conservatively estimate that for every day schools were closed to COVID, community training settings were closed for an additional 1-2 days. Taken together, this could easily add up to more than 150-200 days of lost schooling for transition-aged youths with disabilities.

How much schooling is community-based for transition-aged youths? Every student is different - some (like my daughter Margot) work towards a scheduled of meaningful social and volunteer activities, others (like Allison, who we will meet in a later post) work towards competitive employment, and others still (like those served through a program I designed for Drexel) work towards post-secondary education.. Nonetheless, we can nonetheless expect that, as these youths approach graduation, they should be spending more and more of their school day in a broad range of community settings where they will be as adults.

For example, we had expected that Margot would be spending 60-75% of her school day in our local community of Kennett Square (including 10-12 different work/volunteer opportunities), by the time she aged out of public school this year.

We had been closely monitoring her time in the community, using the schedule we requested from her teacher each month, and this helped to confirm that these were reasonable goals.

  • Margot’s progress during the 2019-20 school year had put her on track to meet our interim goal of spending 60% of her school day in the community near her school in Downingtown (including 8 different work/volunteer settings) by June 2020.

  • When COVID closed Margot’s school in March 2020, she was already spending almost 50% of her school day learning in Downingtown, including 6 different work/volunteer settings (see March 2020 schedule).

COVID's impact on community-based training, quantified. How did COVID change all this? Margot’s community-based training just returned to pre-pandemic levels - more than 18 months after schools first re-opened after COVID.

  • By March 2021 - 6 months after schools re-opened, she was barely spending 30% of her school day learning in the community, and including only 2 different work/volunteer settings (see March 2021 schedule).

  • By April 2022 - more than 18 months after schools re-opened - Margot was spending barely 40% of her school day learning in the community, in just 5 different work/volunteer settings (see April 2022 schedule).

  • Our advocacy finally helped Margot to return to pre-pandemic levels in May, with 47% of her school day learning in the community, across 8 different work/volunteer settings

How much lost schooling does this add up to? Over 220 days as of October 2021

  • By October 2021, when we began discussions with Margot's school to try to assert her rights under IDEA, we determined that Margot had lost over 600 hours of community-based training. We calculated that it would take Margot over 150 additional days of school to recoup the community training time lost to date, once she was back up to her pre-pandemic levels of community training...but she has continued to fall behind since then.

  • Margot could not benefit from virtual instruction, so when schools were first closed in March 2019 , she lost more than 70 days through September 2020 (including summer school).

Margot’s example is a best-case scenario, because we advocated early and vigorously for community-based training to be restored.

  • We used school closures during COVID to develop an innovative program to build Margot's capacity for longer and more challenging community-based hikes (see above) that we are now presenting at state and national conferences. The trail walks we introduced into Margot's school programming once schools re-opened significantly compensated for lost community time, and prevented her from falling even further behind.

  • Following intensive negotiations with her school between October 2021 and March 2022, we introduced home and community-based training 1 day/week in Kennett beginning in May... the first significant increase in the amount of community time and range of settings in 6 months.

There is a much broader problem here: there has been no accountability for the loss in community-based training experienced by youths with disabilities. We already know that the measures proposed by special education leaders to help those with disabilities recoup these losses were unrealistic. We doubt that few parents were in a position to calculate the tremendous loss of community-based training. But even if parents know what their children are entitled to, are able to gather the information documenting the schooling lost, can find and pay for lawyers to help them to make their case, and then actually bring their case to a hearing officer, schools are unlikely to simply give back the number of days lost. And we can hardly fault educators after the extraordinary efforts they made to keep schools running during an unprecedented crisis.

The lost opportunities of community-based training is also part of a broader story. Those familiar with the challenges of the transition into adulthood know that the impact of this disruption will be broad and potentially lifelong. We will devote a separate post to break down why the transition from school is so important.



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