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NEWS from the Office of the New York State Comptroller
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DiNapoli: Pandemic Disrupts Special Education; Many Students Missing Mandated Services

Addressing Learning Loss for Students with Disabilities Should be Prioritized in School Districts' Spending Plans for New Federal and State Aid

September 8, 2021

New York students with disabilities lost partial or full special education services because of school shutdowns and the shift to remote learning during the pandemic that likely exacerbated pre-existing achievement gaps, according to a report released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“Remote learning disrupted the entire educational system, but the students who need special education services were especially impacted,” DiNapoli said. “An essential part of this year’s school reopening plans should be determining how to compensate for the learning losses students suffered and to ensure they succeed in their educational goals.”

Schools collaborate with service providers and a student’s family to create an individualized education program (IEP) to meet the student’s unique learning needs. During the 2019-20 school year, more than 464,400 students in New York public schools, or 18% of the state’s total K-12 enrollment, had a disability.

During the COVID-19 crisis, programs and services for students with disabilities were disrupted by abrupt shutdowns in March 2020 and a substantial reliance by school districts on hybrid learning models during the 2020-21 school year. A smaller share of students with disabilities returned to fully in-person instruction (6%) than the statewide average for all students (7%). While all students faced the challenges of the health crisis, economic disruption and use of new technology, students with disabilities were often unable to receive IEP-mandated services or received them remotely, potentially limiting the quality of service or its effectiveness, particularly for therapies that require hands-on, face-to-face interaction or specialized equipment.

New York City, which educates nearly half of the state’s students with disabilities, reported that as many as 46% of students with disabilities received only part of the interventions in their IEP or none in November 2020, with the number declining to 24% in January 2021. An additional 28% did not receive full or partial related services, such as speech or occupational therapy, with the number declining to 13% in January 2021. Disabled students who needed bilingual services suffered the greatest losses, with 41% of students entitled to bilingual counseling not receiving those services as of January.

Research indicates learning loss during the pandemic may be greater for students with disabilities, and achievement gaps that predated the pandemic are likely to widen. On 2019 Grade 3-8 English Language Arts state assessments, 52% of general education students met or exceeded the proficiency standard compared to just 14% of students with disabilities. A similar proficiency gap of 37 percentage points was identified on 2019 Grade 3-8 math state assessments.

Substantial new resources available over the next four years provide an opportunity to address the learning losses suffered during the pandemic given that many schools are returning to in-person learning. State education aid will increase by $8.4 billion over the next few years. In addition, New York was allocated over $15 billion in federal emergency education aid under three relief packages.

DiNapoli said school districts should prioritize spending state and federal aid on special education programs and related services to help address short-term setbacks and longstanding inequities for students with disabilities. A renewed focus on collection of educational performance data will also directly support the State Education Department’s efforts to better understand the pandemic’s impact on students with disabilities and to identify appropriate solutions where state and federal aid can be best spent.

Disruption to Special Education Services: Closing the Gap on Learning Loss from COVID-19

Track state and local government spending at Open Book New York. Under State Comptroller DiNapoli’s open data initiative, search millions of state and local government financial records, track state contracts, and find commonly requested data.