It’s no secret that COVID-19 has forced a major reconstruction of our education system. From Zoom lectures to teletherapy, teachers and students have scrambled to adapt to the state’s ever-changing guidelines. And these changes have left many K-12 students’ needs unmet – including the needs of the nearly 171,000 Maine children in special education programs.

To give some context: More than 7 million children in the United States have documented disabilities. In the last 50 years, our government has established programs and laws (like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) that assert that students must receive appropriate educational accommodations. Individualized education programs and 504 plans were created to ensure that all students can succeed. But what happens when these legal requirements are not followed?

COVID-19 protocols and special education services don’t seem to mesh. Children with sensory sensitivities may be unable to wear masks for extended periods of time, meaning they could be unable to learn in person. Some children are immunocompromised and have to stay at home. Frequently changing schedules are difficult for kids who thrive on structure. And when schools move to 100 percent remote learning, most students with one-on-one staff completely lose that support – a service they are legally entitled to.

Students who didn’t receive their accommodations at the start of quarantine were supposed to be compensated once in-person learning resumed. Children who missed assessments or IEP reviews in the spring were supposed to make those up this fall. In many cases, none of this makeup work transpired. And standardized assessments that did happen took place virtually – a model of service delivery that wasn’t created to take place online.

A major challenge in all of this is parental expectations. Whether they work from home or in the community, parents have had to take on many new roles with no training. They have become makeshift ed techs, lunch staff, tutors and principals – all while juggling housekeeping, working and coping with the stress of the pandemic. The expectations we’ve put on parents are unhealthy. Unreasonable. And the next generation’s education is suffering because of it.

Most school departments will say that they’re working on it. They are trying to prioritize kids who need the most support in school by scheduling as much in-person instruction as possible. For one child I know, this meant changing their primary teacher a few months into the school year. Specialists like occupational and speech therapists are also trying to provide services through telehealth, though certain types of therapy are not conducive to online teaching. And many schools have addressed student socialization needs by providing lunch and recess outdoors. But when COVID-19 cases start to rise this winter as the flu season hits, how are students going to get their needs met?

Our school systems need to do better for students with disabilities. IEPs and 504 plans should be followed like the contracts that they are. Students who are entitled to appointments with specialists need to receive those services to the greatest extent possible. If that’s not happening, parents should be able to speak up about the injustices taking place – and their voices need to be heard.

In order to provide appropriate services, it all comes down to one thing: funding. Our schools need more money for PPE, hazard pay, sick-time banks and student materials. Many schools and mental health agencies have seen a high staff turnover rate as the pandemic progresses. When I’ve spoken with individuals who left their jobs, some of the reasons I’ve heard were lack of support, burnout and the inability to make a living wage. This is why, in addition to amplifying student needs, our teachers’ voices need to be heard, too.

Among many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. It is our responsibility as adults to ensure that the well-being and education of the next generation are not included among the casualties.

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