Advocates fear Michigan online education legislation leaves special needs students in the dust

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A package of bills approved by the Michigan Senate on Saturday to be voted by the House on Monday leaves it up to local school districts to decide between in-person teaching, online-only schooling, or a variation of both methods amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, special education advocates fear that the bills do little to ensure access to necessary specialized services to students with learning disabilities.

Marcie Lipsitt, a special needs advocate, told Michigan Radio that many students with special needs are unable to physically use computers, tablets, and other devices required for successful online learning — putting them at a disadvantage for the upcoming, and uncertain, school year.

According to Lipsitt, it's likely that online-only schooling could impact the hours per week students receive “occupational, behavioral, speech, and other specialized services.” Pre-pandemic, students were provided with 30 hours of instruction. Lipsitt fears that those hours could be reduced drastically, as would the quality of coaching each child and parent would receive.

This, Lipsitt says, is also against state law, which ensures special education students the right to have access to teaching personnel that is “specially designed to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability.

Should districts fail to offer-in person instruction or offer comparable in-home or online alternatives, parents could file civil rights complaints.

Funding is also a major issue. According to federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that districts must allocate the same amount of funding for its special education programs as the previous year. If Congress fails to provide emergency aid to the nation's schools, districts could be tasked with making cuts to various departments and services, special education included.

Currently, Michigan's School Aid Fund is short by $1.2 billion for this fiscal year.

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