For Some Oregon Children—Including Mine—Public Schools Haven’t Reopened

Disabled children are still not getting the same access to school that typical children get. That has been illegal in the United States since 1975.

For some students, the obstacles to returning to classrooms are overwhelming. (Photo by Brian Burk, art direction by Brian Breneman)

Last November, my school board sent an open letter to the community stressing that all students belong.

The West Linn-Wilsonville School Board’s well-intentioned letter, aimed at “disrupting systems of racism,” ended with the following: “When you walk into our schools, you are honored and welcome, just as you are.”

I read the letter with increasing agitation. Let’s set aside the fact that some WLWV students—like my son—cannot “walk.” The letter’s emphasis on inclusion inside school buildings stood in stark contrast to the many disabled students I knew who still were not back to full-time, in-person school.

My own twins, 11, haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in 24 months. Both are on “individual education programs,” which means the district had been getting double the funding of a typical student for them for two years while providing little in exchange. Before the pandemic, each needed multiple services throughout the six-hour school day, including personal aides. At the time the school board sent their letter of inclusion last fall, we were receiving access to a poorly designed and unsupported online portal and up to 90 minutes per week of virtual chitchat—on weeks their overwhelmed teachers didn’t cancel.

At the time the school board sent its letter of inclusion, we were receiving access to a poorly designed and unsupported online portal and up to 90 minutes per week of virtual chitchat—on weeks their overwhelmed teachers didn’t cancel.

That’s it. Not six hours a day, 30 hours a week of professionally individualized instruction in a warm building with plenty of adults and peers. Just me. At home. With whatever help and energy I could muster.

The reason cited by the district? Staffing. It did not have enough support staff to make my twins welcome—even though it is legally required to find them.

We were not alone. State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin (D-Corvallis) says she’s heard from dozens of parents whose disabled children are still not getting the same access to school that typical children get. That has been illegal in the United States since 1975, when Congress passed the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

“What we’re looking at is a complete rollback to the idea that children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education,” Gelser Blouin says. “The law is clear: These kids are entitled to school. There is no question that they are breaking the law.”

Her solution was a bill that would have given the Oregon Department of Education the authority to withhold state school funds if disabled students weren’t let back in their school buildings. But Oregon legislative leadership killed the bill in the last week of February.

It wasn’t the price tag: Gelser Blouin’s proposal would have cost $3.2 million this biennium and $6.6 million the next to create an investigative unit within ODE. By comparison, Oregon received a $30 million windfall this year to shore up special education. And one of the expenditures that did make it on the docket this session was $150 million for summer learning programs.

You know, for the kids who can go to school.

Gelser Blouin says she believes Senate Bill 1578A simply created too much paperwork for the Legislature to work through in the short session.

That “pales in comparison to the paperwork and the heartache” that families will have to go through to get their children with disabilities an education, Gelser Blouin says. She now fears that disabled children will lose four to five years of formal schooling without this measure as she sees no indication that things will change for them by next fall.

Gelser Blouin says she has tallied 70 specific children affected by these practices, and estimates the total number affected in our state is far higher—”at least hundreds.”

Perhaps her bill would have helped many of those children get back to school in a matter of weeks, as she says, but I don’t believe it would have done so for mine. At least, not in a way that would be appropriate for their needs.

They don’t simply need access to a building. They need thoughtful, competent staff with training and resources. The core problem is the way that schools have been designed—and the state’s long-standing inability to follow through on its promises.

Just ask Paul Terdal. A Portland-based management consultant to tech companies and the father of two autistic boys, Terdal has experienced just about every layer of the school complaint process.

He is skeptical that SB 1578A would have resulted in huge changes at the classroom level. Terdal says he just hasn’t seen the Oregon Department of Education use the enforcement mechanisms already at its disposal.

“Is ODE actually going to do anything useful if they get this?” he wonders. “What I have seen tells me, frankly, that they probably won’t.”

So if the state doesn’t use its sticks, what about carrots? Terdal says he also hasn’t had much luck partnering with schools to advocate for more funding.

President Joe Biden did boost special education funding, through the American Rescue Plan and his 2022 budget. It hasn’t seemed to make a difference.

Gelser Blouin’s bill would have given “ODE authority to intervene, but they have to want to do it,” Terdal says. “I have not seen that willingness to step up no matter how much money they get.”

In a letter supporting Gelser Blouin’s bill, Oregon education chief Colt Gill said his department has “partnered with local districts and [education service districts] to overcome this issue” in some places, but he acknowledges children are still being denied equal access “due to recruitment, training and other challenges.”

The Legislature may be more inclined to pass SB 1578 next year, during the long session, but Gelser Blouin says that’s not soon enough.

“We have a systemic problem, but we don’t fix it systemically,” she says.

Instead, the onus is put on each family, each child, to suffer, then complain and fight to get their needs met.

“That is such an offensive idea that we push families to do that,” Gelser Blouin says.

In January, at a meeting to develop an on-ramp back into the classroom, the West Linn-Wilsonville district said it couldn’t provide what my boys needed due to staffing concerns. I wasn’t asking for the full day with the full staff they were entitled to—just one hour of an appropriate extracurricular class.

I remain skeptical that one bill will fix the problem. I’ve met a lot of school staff over the past seven years, both as a parent and an education reporter. The vast majority have been kind, thoughtful, patient and caring. They often got into special education because they wanted to “do the right thing” by kids with disabilities.

I’ve come to the conclusion they simply can’t in our current system, no matter how many letters ODE sends asking for compliance.

There aren’t enough adults in the building. There aren’t enough emotionally stable humans (kids and adults) around. There isn’t enough training and experience. There isn’t much universally designed curriculum. And, to be sure, there isn’t enough fun—that stuff that makes learning easy and school worth going to.

I ended up pulling my boys out of traditional school in favor of an online public charter, where they are doing well.

To be honest, anything would probably have been better than the charade we were in. Our meetings had become a farce. None of the interventions needed from staff were possible because they weren’t physically present. None of them knew much of anything about my kids or how they learn.

They’d barely spent any time with them at all.

Shasta Kearns Moore is the creator of Medical Motherhood, a weekly newsletter and podcast dedicated to the experience of raising children with disabilities.

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