Students with learning disabilities who lost progress during the pandemic might be entitled to receive free after-school tutoring and extra support from Montgomery County Public Schools, but many families are still confused about how to access these services or encounter barriers, parents and advocates say.
So-called compensatory services are an aspect of special education for students who have “not been provided services identified on an Individualized Education Program” when “there is a measurable negative educational impact on the student because of the loss of services,” according to information provided by MCPS communications director Jessica Baxter.
In the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown and resulting shift to virtual learning, compensatory services became a key concern for parents of students with IEPs. In order to award such services, a student’s IEP team is required to conduct a thorough review of school data and progress reports. The services themselves typically consist of tutoring hours and are only available to students after school.
Although Gov. Larry Hogan urged counties to return to in-person learning earlier, many Montgomery County school campuses remained closed until the start of the 2021-2022 school year. “Learning loss” due to the pandemic affected students across the nation, but especially impacted those with disabilities. Compensatory services are an attempt by the county to help families make up for lost time.
However, Baxter reiterated that an award of compensatory services is “specifically related to progress on IEP goals” and “does not take into consideration if students’ rates of progress overall in their academic subjects was slower due to COVID closures.” She said the district has addressed loss of learning opportunities due to COVID-19 by offering tutoring for both special and general education students.
Data provided by the district indicates the vast majority students on IEPs were screened for compensatory services. Of those screened, about 31% were deemed eligible and almost 24% had begun receiving services as of September 2022.
But a number of families and advocates say many parents weren’t fully informed about the services, don’t think their children were adequately screened or would have been unable to access the help because of when it was offered.
Jennifer Reesman is a licensed neuropsychologist from Bethesda who works with special education students every day. “Compensatory services don’t mean the school did anything bad,” she said. “It means maybe this child wasn’t able to access services in that virtual environment and didn’t make progress as a result.”
All students with learning disabilities in prekindergarten through high school who attended MCPS during the COVID-19 lockdown from March 16, 2020 through June 30, 2021 are eligible to be considered for compensatory services, but Reesman says she’s concerned that many students missed out because families didn’t even know the services existed.
“The theme that I’m hearing from a lot of families is that their IEP team will mention compensatory services and then very quickly say, ‘But your child’s not eligible,’” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of confusion around it. Families really aren’t pushing back or questioning until they realize that things have really gone downhill.”
She said this confusion hurts low-income and immigrant families the most.
“Unfortunately, the special education process is often so daunting and challenging that it results in families not knowing what their rights are,” she said. “Who does that target the most? Families with less means, with a language access barrier, who have a harder time accessing this information. And those are the children who most need these services.”
The school system was supposed to screen every student with an IEP for compensatory service eligibility within one year after lockdown ended, but Reesman said parents can still request services if their child lost valuable progress over the pandemic.
Baxter also reiterated on behalf of MCPS that parents may request an IEP meeting at any point in time if they have concerns about their child’s learning progress.
As of Dec. 7, 2022, there were 21,106 active Individualized Education Programs within MCPS, according to acting associate superintendent Diana K. Wyles from the Office of Special Education.
Because of the COVID-19 closures, Baxter said MCPS reviewed the IEP progress of all students with IEPs who were enrolled during the pandemic to determine their eligibility for compensatory services. She said MCPS gave parents the opportunity to provide feedback and discuss their own observations of their child’s progress “so that IEP teams could make decisions with parental input.”
Allison Wohl is the mother of a seventh grader with Down syndrome at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School. She said the school offered to reimburse her family for 31 hours of after-school tutoring but said “there’s no way to make up for the year of learning loss and isolation [he] endured.” She said she knows of “almost no one” whose children have received services.
Since February 2020, when schools first transitioned to virtual learning, 20,585 students have been screened for compensatory services, according to data from Baxter. Of those students, 6,405 have been deemed eligible to receive services and 4,846 have begun receiving services as of September 2022, Baxter reported to Bethesda Beat.
Former school board candidate Esther Wells is the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 10. She raised disabled services within MCPS as a key issue during her campaign for District 1’s board seat in 2022. Her older son is diagnosed with autism, and she said his learning regressed by two years during the pandemic due to virtual learning complications.
“I didn’t know the services even existed,” she said. “I think people don’t know this is even an option.”
She said someone from the school mentioned compensatory services to her at one point, but no one returned her emails or calls and the screening deadline passed. She then testified about her situation at a Board of Education meeting. After hearing her testimony, her district school board member, Judith Docca, reached out to personally help secure services for her son. Docca retired in December 2022, and Grace Rivera-Oven secured the District 1 seat in her stead.
Wells said the additional one-on-one tutoring has been a huge asset for her son and something he enjoys.
“It’s great that you helped my son, but what about everyone else?” she said. “I think that’s the part that is still so heartbreaking—MCPS isn’t doing more to reach out to parents. They’re waiting for parents to get desperate and relentless.”
Kim Glassman is a local attorney with over 17 years of experience representing families in special education cases. She said the biggest challenge in fulfilling compensatory services is that they’re only accessible to students after school hours.
“Is it realistic to put that burden on kids after hours?” she asked. “Is providing these services outside of school hours really effective to the kids who need them, or do we need to rethink what we’re doing during the school day?”
Making compensatory services accessible during school hours would require thinking outside the box, she said, adding that the “overwhelming staffing shortages impacting MCPS every day” would make such a shift next to impossible.
According to Wyles, there are 49 full-time and nine part-time vacant special education teacher positions within MCPS as of December 2022, and 32 full-time and 74 temporary part-time special education paraeducator positions. The offices of Special Education and Human Resources and Development are working collaboratively to fill these vacancies through recruiting efforts, university partnerships and incentive programs, Wyles said.
Glassman also pointed to transportation barriers as an issue with the current model for compensatory services. If a school doesn’t offer to bus students to their provider, and if their parent isn’t available to drive them, she said the student often ends up missing out on those services.
“What I wish would happen is creative problem-solving in collaboration with the private sector to actually bring that support into the schools during the school day when kids are more likely to successfully engage in them,” Glassman said.
When asked whether MCPS has plans to address parental concerns about compensatory service accessibility or to modify its strategy in awarding services, Baxter responded to Bethesda Beat in a written statement:
“MCPS addresses any issues with loss of services on a student specific, case-by-case basis as required by the law. We encourage parents to voice their concerns in a number of ways and address them individually to ensure that we are meeting students’ individual needs and protecting the confidentiality of each students’ records.”
Reesman said she hopes parents feel empowered to ask for more information when it comes to compensatory services. Even if an IEP team deems a child ineligible, she said if parents disagree with the decision there’s a legally protected process in place for them to request reconsideration.
“The more we can make these services as easy to access as possible, the better for all of these kids,” she said.