Since the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1970s, and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, federal law has been very clear – children with disabilities must be provided with full and equal access to a public education.

Maine has the second highest rate in the country of students who receive special education services – 20 percent compared to the national average of 14.5 percent. These students are entitled under federal law to full and equal access to a public education. FrankHH/

But often children with disabilities and their families continue to have to fight for equal access. When a science teacher is out sick, schools don’t tell those students to stay home. But when an educational technician or other supportive staff are unavailable, students with disabilities are sometimes asked to stay home, or to attend school for a shortened day. This is not equitable nor does it cultivate the sense of belonging we want for all students. And although remote learning is sometimes used as a backup plan, we know it is not the equivalent of in-person instruction.

Many children with disabilities were denied access to equal educational opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. And now school districts are floating ideas that would result in further denial of access to equal educational opportunity for children with disabilities. Planning to violate children’s rights today with a promise to make it up to them tomorrow is not a plan for equal access to education.

Staffing shortages in schools, which have been predicted for years and were accelerated and worsened by the pandemic, must not disproportionately affect children with disabilities. Instead, Maine schools can use this staffing crisis as an opportunity to rethink outdated practices: We don’t need to rely on educational technicians or separate classrooms and programs to effectively support students with disabilities.

There is a more inclusive way.

Schools can prioritize hiring licensed special educators and inclusion specialists with savings accrued from reduced educational technician positions. And they can tap into the rich human resources they already have – including general and special educators, literacy and math specialists, instructional coaches, related service providers, et al. – to create more collaborative and inclusive supports for students with disabilities. This type of inclusive resource reallocation is done in schools around the country, ensuring that the most qualified staff are working with the students with the greatest support needs

Leaders can also commit to ongoing professional development regarding inclusive teaching structures and practices so that all staff feel prepared to collaboratively support students with and without disabilities in general education classrooms. These inclusive school teams are then supported by educational technicians, but are not reliant on them to provide meaningful education to students with disabilities.

Together, these changes lead to better outcomes and fewer segregated experiences for students with disabilities, better instruction for all students and even fewer special education referrals. It is notable that Maine has the second highest rate in the country of students who receive special education services  – 20 percent compared to the national average of 14.5 percent.

It is an excellent time for Maine schools to embrace and implement a new inclusive plan for our students. We may be facing a shortage of educational technicians, and many of the positions are not expected to be filled any time soon. Instead of viewing this as a problem and proposing solutions that create new inequities for our students, we can view this as an opportunity to improve our schools for everyone.

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