Roby Chavez, whose sons are special education students at Bricolage Academy, said he likes the state’s guidance but worries how well it will filter down to the local level. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Louisiana Department of Education is encouraging schools to begin planning for and offering additional services to special education students to make up for what they lost during the unprecedented three-month statewide school closure due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

The services are intended to address “progress or skills lost due to the extended school facility closure” and, if necessary, must be in addition to what the child typically receives according to their special education plan.

“School systems should begin planning now to ensure students with disabilities can receive ​Strong Start Compensatory Services​ as soon as possible,” the state advised in a six-page document. “School systems can begin providing services over the summer, and/or within the first month of the 2020-2021 school year.”

The advice draws on federal recommendations from previous disasters and school closures and is modeled after “compensatory services,” a familiar term among people in special education. 

Compensatory services usually come into play when a school system fails a student and must make up services owed. These are slightly different in that they address a shortcoming that came as the result of the COVID-19 school closure. 

New Orleans parent Roby Chavez, who has two boys with autism, one of whom also has ADHD, said he’s happy to see the guidance, but worries about how it will unfold in New Orleans’ decentralized school system. Chavez is an advocate for students with disabilities and a founding member of the Sunshine Parents advocacy group.

“If it works, this kind of intentional program will be extremely helpful to identify the gaps left by the pandemic,” he said in an interview last week. 

But he and his husband are a bit skeptical because they haven’t heard from their sons’ school, Bricolage Academy, yet and the makeup services will require a lot of work. A school must determine whether the child met their yearly goals, which will include a review of their individual education plan, often called an IEP, and then offer parents the opportunity to discuss additional services. 

Bricolage Academy’s CEO did not respond to questions Tuesday, though the school is currently on summer break. 

Chavez’s concerns are citywide. The NOLA Public Schools district, which is made up almost entirely of autonomous charter schools run by nonprofit organizations, was placed under a federal consent decree for failing to provide adequate special education services in 2015. 

“There is skepticism because the process is not always clear and at times seems to shift abruptly,” Chavez said. “It points to the challenges of a decentralized system. Especially at Bricolage, they don’t have the capacity.”

Chavez has previously criticized Bricolage for failing to provide adequate special education for his son. In 2019, he challenged a school policy that he said illegally excluded his son from aftercare because he required additional attention. 

“I’m glad that they’ve been thoughtful and intentional about this,” he said of the state. “But I think once it leaves Baton Rouge, especially with charters, that level of accountability is an unknown.”

Chavez said the evaluations will require a lot of time. 

“IEP meetings are difficult for parents as is.” Chavez said, noting they can be stressful, hard to coordinate and time consuming. “So what I would prefer is that they — they should have already reached out to everyone, done a basic assessment and scheduled a date to meet with everyone.”

Even if a school offered distance learning and provided special education services remotely, the school still must evaluate all students with IEPs, according to the state. 

“Strong Start Compensatory Services cannot change the services a student receives under his or her current individualized plan and must be provided in addition to the services implemented in the student’s current plan,” the document says. “Strong Start Compensatory Services cannot interfere with a student’s least restrictive environment.”

The state has also released a template schools can use. 

The NOLA Public School district oversees the majority of charter schools in the city, including Bricolage. A few New Orleans charters are authorized by the state. Additionally, the district has taken on one direct-run school. Effective July 1, the district is running Mary D. Coghill Elementary. 

Last summer, a parent at Coghill complained about special education services. After investigating, district officials found at least nine students were owed special education services. That appeared to be one of several reasons the district did not renew Coghill’s charter. 

The district did not answer questions about when it would begin evaluating Coghill students.

A statement provided by the district said it “is working on special education guidance to be included as an addendum to the reopening road map. Comp Ed (Covid-19 Impact Services and Supports) is included.”

The reopening plan is supposed to be released this week. 

In response to questions, the district provided a statement emphasizing the state guidance, which states schools must review IEPs when the new school year begins to evaluate how the school closure affected each student. “These are individualized determinations for each child with an IEP. The parent and the school system may agree not to convene an IEP Team meeting and instead develop a written plan addressing Strong Start Compensatory Services as part of an amendment or modification to the child’s current IEP.”

The district advised schools to contact parents now to get started, but did not specifically say whether it was contacting Coghill families. 

Chavez said he hopes to see the wheels start turning soon. 

“We’re wondering where is the accountability in all of it,” Chavez asked. “How will they monitor this program and ensure that it is actually happening and meaningful?”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...