Amid staff shortages, Oregon students with disabilities get short shrift

One senator is trying to accelerate investigations, solutions from the state Education Department when special education classes get cut, reduced.

By: - November 29, 2021 6:15 am
Empty classroom

A new analysis of data from Oregon schools during the 2021-22 school year shows statewide school staffing levels are rebounding from pandemic declines, but on-time graduation rates have dropped and chronic absenteeism remains a problem. (Rachel Parsons/Malheur Enterprise)

In a recent Senate Education Committee meeting dominated by conversations around school staff shortages, state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said the loss of special education teachers was violating students’ civil rights.

She brought up the Lane Education Service District, supporting 16 school districts including Eugene, where Life Skills classes that typically were conducted five days a week were dropped to four. Life Skills is where students with cognitive disabilities go to receive lessons on math, reading, as well as everyday skills like money management and household chores. 

“Students, functionally, were denied school,” she said. “Civil rights don’t go away in the midst of a pandemic.”

The reduction had been going on since the beginning of the school year, and could be a potential violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to Gelser Blouin. The federal law requires students with disabilities to get instruction and classroom time equal to their peers without disabilities.

The problem is not just with the Lane Education Service District. 

Statewide, teacher and staff shortages are especially acute in special education, leaving students who need the most attention with some of the least. There are nearly 80,000 K-12 students in Oregon enrolled in special education classes, according to most recent figures from the state Education Department. According to advocates and officials at the school districts and education service districts, some Oregon students with disabilities have been missing full days of school, been assigned to instructors with already large numbers of students or had lessons moved online.

“One mom I talked with a week ago told me her child lost 11 school days between the second week of the school year and last Monday,” Gelser Blouin said of a student in the Lane district. “There’s been about 40 school days so far so 11 days, that’s a quarter of his learning time this year.”

In the Harney Education Service District based in Burns and serving east-central school districts, one special education teacher supports seven remote districts. The service district couldn’t find a speech and language pathologist this year, and instead contracted for outside speech pathology programming that could be streamed to classrooms and students’ homes. 

Those are the last group of kids I want to see not in school. We’ll do everything we can to keep them in school.

– Kevin Bogatin, superintendent, North Bend School District

In the Clackamas Education Service District based in Clackamas and serving 10 school districts in the south Portland area, the Life Enrichment Education Programming for students with disabilities, much like Life Skills, is down 14 staff. The district moved to four days a week in person and one day a week online due to shortages. 

The district has offered a $500 bonus to current employees who refer applicants who are hired, and a $1,000 bonus to those who get hired.

In the High Desert Education Service District, serving schools in Bend-LaPine, Crook County, Redmond and Sisters, Human Resources Director Jayel Hayden said they’ve been looking for an early childhood special education instructor since last school year and they are down six paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals often work with students with disabilities and assist special education teachers in the classroom.

They haven’t cut classroom or instruction hours yet but, he said, instructors have higher student loads. The district is short of sign language interpreters, resulting in doubling the student load for the current staff.

“We’re seeing some applicants for these positions, and some are coming out of subbing to be paras, which hurts us in another way,” he said of the district’s substitute teacher shortage.

In the North Bend School District, Superintendent Kevin Bogatin said his district is “just thin on everything. We don’t have a lot of subs. We’re pulling coaches. A music teacher will cover a class at one of the elementary schools. Every single day we have unfilled positions.”

Bogatin said one of the district’s special education instructors recently declared an intention to quit. 

“We’re hoping to talk them out of it,” he said, “cause I don’t think they have another job lined up.”

Bogatin said he hasn’t cut classroom time or instruction for students with disabilities, but he recently asked state education officials “If I don’t have a qualified person in that role, what happens?”

He said if the district does lose that instructor and they have to cut classes, it will consider offering to provide school days and classes during a school break or after the school year. 

“Those are the last group of kids I want to see not in school. We’ll do everything we can to keep them in school,” Bogatin said of students with disabilities.

“I also want to keep people safe. I have a student right now who’s pretty violent if you don’t intervene properly; doesn’t have a lot of communication skills,” he said. “When you bring someone in who is untrained, not as highly skilled, it can be dangerous,” he said. 

The district has been recruiting teachers and other staff to fill vacancies in behavioral support roles.

Covid provided an excuse for bad districts

– Joel Greenberg, senior staff attorney for special education, Disability Rights Oregon

The concern that short staffing can create a dangerous situation for students and instructors was the reason the Lane district trimmed one day from its Life Skills class schedule, according to Superintendent Tony Scurto.

“Students in Life Skills have really intricate protocols for feeding and swallowing. If you do not have enough staff on hand, it’s a risk to student health. That is a big issue,” he said.

“That’s the tradeoff for us. Believe me we want five full days, but it’s unsafe right now. I won’t make it anymore unsafe,” he said.

Joel Greenberg, a senior staff attorney for special education at the advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon, said many districts in the state had been struggling before Covid-19 to find special education instructors, directors and classroom aides. 

The pandemic produced “an extension of a long-standing set of problems,” he said.

 “Covid provided an excuse for bad districts.”

He’s been working on complaints on behalf of students who missed out on instruction from last year’s virtual programming when schools were closed to in-person instruction.

“There are non-verbal, autistic kids who, when covid began, were getting three to four hours – on paper – of virtual instruction per day. They couldn’t engage at all.”

For his clients the most difficult part of advocating for themselves and their kids is figuring out how to even complain, and then enduring the process triggered when they do so.

Gelser Blouin intends to introduce new rules at the Legislature in February to make it easier for parents to report discrimination against students with disabilities. State standards include a process for reporting descrimination first to the school district for investigation, then, potentially to the Education Department. 

“You have to have started the complaint in the school district – the one that’s denying you in the first place,” GelserBlouin said.

She wants complaints to go directly to the Education Department. 

Under her proposal, if the Education Department finds a school district is violating standards, it could direct a remedy be in place within five weeks.

Gelser Blouin said parents can also complain to the federal Office of Civil Rights, but that process can take years.

“None of this gets kids back in school right away,” she said.

She hopes that solutions can come before February, and that the Education Department will work with her to make sure students with disabilities get back into classrooms soon.

“It shoudnt take all these complaints, these discrimination filings,” she said.

“I can’t think of any other group of students who would be told, ‘Oh we just can’t do this school day.’”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.