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Online education bills don't include exceptions for severely impaired kids


An advocate for special needs students says severely impaired children were left out of consideration in online education bills that are on a fast track to Governor Gretchen Whitmer's desk.

The bills allow districts to offer online-only schooling. Marcie Lipsitt says that's completely useless for many severely impaired students. 

"These kids can't even access the computer, they can't access a mouse, physically, they can't access a tablet," she says.

Lipsitt says she fears an online-only format could mean districts will go from providing impaired students with around 30 hours a week of occupational, behavioral, speech, and other specialized services to substituting a few hours a week of online coaching for the parents of the children.

She says that's a violation of state law, which requires a meaningful education for all special education students. If districts don't offer in-person services, they have to offer similar alternatives, she says, such as therapy in the home, or in private clinics. Parents can file civil rights complaints if they don't get it.

Lipsitt says parents should be prepared to fight back.

"Do not agree to a 'contingency learning plan' that districts started emailing parents about just this weekend," she advises. "Parents can say no."

Marty Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education says it's not preferable, but the state will likely need to seek a waiver of the state's special education rules, because of the pandemic.  He says even so, some districts will be providing face-to-face special education services.  

State Senator Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat from Oakland County, says the bills were rushed through, with little to no consultation with special education experts.

She says the one thing thing that is absolutely necessary and is missing from the bills is adequate funding.

"Is the answer to give them adequate funding, and step out of the way? I think it could be as simple as that," she says.

Bayer acknowledges at this point, there is a $1.2 billion shortfall in the state's School Aid fund.

If the U.S. Congress does not approve additional emergency aid to the nation's states and K-12 schools, districts could face the grim task of making deep cuts to all their services, including special education.

Clarification: This story has been updated to more clearly reflect that Michigan Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley said waiving the MARSE (Michigan Administrative Rules on Special Education) is not preferable, and not that some districts don't prefer to offer face-to-face services.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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