But D.C. officials say that a blanket extension is not necessary and individual families should make their appeals to the local education agency that oversees special education if they feel their child requires more services.
It’s a fight taking place in jurisdictions across the country as districts attempt to recoup some of what the nation’s most vulnerable students lost during the prolonged school closures. And it’s an acknowledgment that education officials don’t yet know the full scope of the academic and social toll that students experienced over the past 16 months. In New York City, the education department extended eligibility to some students for an extra year. Other states have allowed aged out students to attend summer programs.
In the District, students age out of special education services the semester they turn 22, which is when they can no longer be enrolled in high school. Many of these students have significant education needs and are on certificate programs where they learn independent living skills instead of earning a traditional diploma. Other students may have been working toward a diploma when the pandemic hit, but turned 22 before completing it.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees special education services, estimates that just a few dozen students would be eligible if it extended services based on who has significant special education needs and aged out during the pandemic.
“For once, can’t you let these kids have the best option?” said Molly Whalen, a mother of two young adults with autism who — like many students with significant special education needs — attend a private school, with the city paying the tuition.
When schools shut down in March 2020, Whalen’s two children had been participating in work training programs at CVS and Michaels, where they learned how to stock shelves, follow directions and interact with co-workers in the lunch room. But there was no way to replicate these social interactions virtually, and the programs were canceled.
Her son graduated in June 2020 at age 21. Her daughter, a 19-year-old rising senior, missed her entire junior year of internships and independent living courses.
The pandemic, she said, stunted her daughter’s social progress, and she thinks the city should consider giving students like her an extra year of services.
Maria Blaeuer — an attorney with Advocates for Justice and Education who represents the aged-out students — said the city should be thinking about how to ensure that these students have access to the programs and courses they lost during the pandemic, not make it difficult for them to obtain it.
Filing a complaint to obtain services is a hurdle, she said, and could result in fewer students opting into an additional year of services.
“It’s infinitely less expensive, more efficient and far more equitable than asking each of these kids to litigate their rights to services,” Blaeuer said. “I met with a young woman who aged out last year. She has an intellectual disability. . . . It felt like a cliff. She had structured counseling and structured jobs program and then she didn’t. That time of doing nothing can be really difficult.”
Officials in the superintendent’s office said that they reviewed students who could be eligible and determined that it’s more effective to have students who have left D.C. schools and want additional services to file a complaint. These complaints would need to be resolved within 60 days.
Because education officials have said an exemption is not necessary, advocates want the D.C. Council to set aside money in the budget to provide these students with special education services. But that also seems unlikely, with the council expected to vote on the budget this month. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said there are still too many unanswered questions about how it would work and how much it would cost. He said individual agencies have flexibility with how they spend their money, and he believes they could fund this without council involvement.
“It would be difficult to do at this point,” he said. “In order to do this, we would have to identify a cost and that has not happened and can’t happen in an instant.”
Laura Lorenzen, a special education advocate, said her daughter was about to turn 22 when the pandemic hit. Her daughter has an intellectual disability and struggles with fine motor skills, requiring help to open packages and tie her shoes. Her final years of school were focused on how to prepare for adulthood.
She has been able to enroll her daughter in a program out of state, but knows that most families would not be able to afford that.
“She did not get the services she was supposed to get, and that was her final year,” Lorenzen said. “There are families out there who do not have any recourse for the last year and a half.”