Washington State Schools Missed Special Education Referrals for 8,500 Children Amidst COVID

Amid growing evidence that the impact of COVID-related school closures on students with disabilities remains largely unaddressed in the U.S. education system, researchers are now estimating the number of children who should have undergone special education evaluations during the pandemic but did not.

In Washington state, approximately 8,500 fewer children in grades K-5 were identified as needing special education services between March 2020 and the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, which is equivalent to enough students to fill 450 classrooms. This information comes from a recent brief by CALDER, the Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research. The identification rate experienced a 23% decrease in 2019-20 compared to 2018-19 and a 20% drop in 2020-21.

Similar to other early analyses, notable declines have been observed in the number of children with disabilities receiving vital support during the pandemic. Using data from Michigan, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that identification rates decreased by 19% in the 2019-20 academic year and 12% in 2020-21.

Uncertainty remains regarding whether these declines indicate delayed support or if many children have slipped through the cracks. Subsequent evaluations have reverted to pre-pandemic levels, implying that children who were not assessed during COVID have yet to be identified.

Roddy Theobald, CALDER’s deputy director and a co-author of the report, expresses concern about the alarming data: “There are going to be long-term consequences. At the very least, probably those students are missing out on two years of needed services. But it’s also possible that this means they will miss 13 years.”

Five important implications are outlined:

Identification matters

Two decades ago, Texas education officials illegally set a cap on special education enrollment in school districts, resulting in detrimental effects on the service provision and outcomes of students with disabilities.

The earlier services commence, the more favorable the outcomes

Evidence indicates that identifying children with disabilities in early grades leads to enhanced learning and quicker progress, laying a strong foundation for future academic success.

Additionally, early intervention reduces the necessity for intensive services in later years.

The numbers may be an undercount

Given the challenges students faced during the pandemic and the high rates of absenteeism among pupils with disabilities in the post-reopening period, there may be more children requiring services than reflected in the data.

Children of color and economically disadvantaged students are likely disproportionately affected

Districts with remote learning and higher percentages of Black, Asian, and impoverished families reported fewer evaluations, implying disparities in identifying students in need of special education services.

The data is concerning, but the urgency to address the crisis is lacking

Despite the alarming data, there is minimal effort to tackle the crisis in providing special education services to students. Shortages of specialized staff exacerbate the challenge of catching up on lost services and evaluating potentially overlooked students.

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