With Covid-19 cases spiking in Hawaii in early August, Ka‘iulani Akamine decided the risk was too high to send her medically fragile daughter, then entering the second grade at Kahaluu Elementary, back to campus.

The 8-year-old girl has a history of seizures and her own doctor suggested she not head back to school until she can receive the vaccine.

Akamine faced few alternatives since the state Department of Education was pushing to get as many kids as possible back to class this school year after a prolonged period of mostly remote learning.

The DOE established a statewide distance learning program for students whose parents wanted to keep them home due to the pandemic, but it has limited seats, not to mention few accommodations for kids with disabilities. Special education students receive specialized services based on their Individualized Education Programs, such as counseling, or physical, occupational or speech therapy.

There are roughly 20,000 special education students in Hawaii, representing 10% of the total DOE population. Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

“Special education students are left out completely from the distance education option because if they opt to go distance, all other services from the IEP will not be included in their education plan or journey,” said Akamine.

In a July 26 memo, the state DOE outlined the expectations for providing a free and appropriate education to special education students during this disrupted time of schooling.

“It is expected that all students, including those with disabilities, will receive full educational services via in-person or a distance learning instructional model,” the memo stated. It added that a student’s IEP team must meet to determine whether a child’s specialized plan can be “implemented in its entirety” through a distance learning program or if content is “accessible with appropriate accommodations and/or modifications.”

That is the predicament facing many families whose kids are enrolled in special education. Although schools are “expected” to provide an appropriate learning plan for kids with special needs, are they actually doing so?

In Akamine’s case, it took several meetings with school administrators plus assistance from the Hawaii Disability Rights Center to get something satisfactory for her daughter this semester: an online tutor eight hours a week as part of a special program called homebound tutoring. It is paid for by the school.

It is offered in very limited circumstances to kids with special medical conditions, and requires physician verification. It is an extension of what’s known as “home-hospital instruction services,” offered through the DOE even prior to the pandemic.

“If I didn’t ask questions and keep asking questions, my daughter would either be in a really unsafe situation, maybe doing the (statewide) distance learning program or homeschooling, but that would be less than ideal,” said Akamine, who work as a faculty specialist at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

Jane Preece, a staff attorney at the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said the advocacy organization has fielded several calls this school year from special education parents around the islands concerned about the lack of distance learning options for their children.

“Most IEPs were based on the assumption a child was in school,” Preece said in an interview. “Then, suddenly in one day, that assumption was not true, so IEPs were not complied with because most of them could not be complied with.”

Hybrid Model Last School Year

Roughly 20,000 kids in Hawaii, or about 10% of the total public school population, are enrolled in special education. They comprise the student subgroup that lags behind the most on the state’s Smarter Balance Assessments in reading and math, with little to no improvement shown in the last four years, according to the 2020 annual report from the Hawaii Special Education Advisory Council, the advisory panel established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In the 2020-21 school year, half of special education kids in Hawaii received instruction through a hybrid model that combined in-person and distance learning, while 30% received full in-person services. About 20% of special education kids participated in full-distance learning, compared with 26.5% of all students, according to data from SEAC.

When the pandemic initially shut down physical classrooms in March 2020 and deprived many kids of the services indicated in their IEPs, Keith Peck, an attorney specializing in special education cases, filed a federal lawsuit against the DOE to force it to develop a framework to evaluate the amount of compensatory, or make-up, services students would need when they returned to school.

“I wanted the Department of Education to set forth what assessments they would do and when,” he said in a recent interview.

The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed early this year, after the DOE said it developed a process to assess the educational needs of special education students. But Peck, who has been practicing special education law for two decades, said while that outlined process looks good on paper, he is ultimately skeptical of whether officials will follow through.

“I know, practicing in this field for 23 years, they would make it illusory: ‘We’ll do all these things,’ but in fact, they’re just going to say they’re going to do those things,” he said.

In response to the pandemic, the DOE has offered families with special needs something called “Covid-19 impact services,” or high-impact supports that go beyond the typical school day, such as after-school tutoring or learning labs. But advocates are concerned that this option was extended only to a handful of eligible students.

As of the third quarter of last school year, the DOE held 15,551 Covid-19 impact services meetings, but executed only 494 plans, according to SEAC meeting minutes from March 2021.

That means only 2% of all special education students got boosted services.

According to Susan Rocco, a SEAC staff member, distance learning options offered to most kids last school year were not teacher-mediated. And this school year, the statewide distance program — which is heavily based on independent study — doesn’t seem appropriate for certain kids with IEPs.

“Our position has been, there needs to be distance learning options for special ed kids if that’s the best way for them to receive their services. But we haven’t gotten anywhere with that,” Rocco said.

“The answer (from DOE) always is, ‘It’s school by school’ (as far as what is offered), which is getting really old,” she added.

Wendy Gady, an Oahu parent whose 16-year-old son is a sophomore at Kalaheo High, said she has been frustrated with the lack of services for her son ever since the pandemic hit. A student of the DOE ever since he was in kindergarten, the teen has Down syndrome, is hearing impaired and has multiple intellectual disabilities, she said.

When Kalaheo High shifted to all remote learning in March 2020, she said they were given “literally nothing for support.”

“No materials, no online classes. We could dial in and have a ‘breakfast club,’ which is not educational, not in line with his IEP,” she said. “There’s not a nice way to say it, but we pretty much had no support.”

Gady said she had to seek outside services for her son from the University of Hawaii Speech and Hearing Clinic, which she paid for out of pocket, and hunt down outside curriculum just to keep him engaged.

“Our hopes are for him to live as independently as possible and to work (in a place of employment) as much as possible,” she said, adding her son is able to discern when he’s making progress.

“He understands when he does busy work and when he does meaningful work,” she said.

Her son, Abram, has received the Covid-19 vaccination, and Gady said she is comfortable with him being back in the school setting this year. Plus, he is in a mostly self-contained classroom and has the one-on-one support of a registered behavioral technician.

It’s an improvement from last year. “I’m conscious of the spectrum of what students receive,” said Gady. “It depends greatly on the individual teacher.”

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