Some New Hampshire school districts are reporting more inquiries than usual into special education services, as families contend with learning loss, developmental delays, and disabilities diagnosed during the pandemic.
Whether these inquiries will translate to more special education plans, called IEP’s, is still unclear. The process begins with a referral — often from a doctor, parent, or service provider — which can jumpstart a formal evaluation and sometimes lead to an IEP.
Nancy Michaud, the director of student services for the Somersworth School District, estimates special ed referrals for preschoolers have doubled this year.
She says in some cases, kids were so isolated during the pandemic that they have developmental delays with language. Michaud noted kids weren’t doing many of their typical activities during the pandemic.
“They weren’t at the park, they weren’t at the library, they weren’t in playgroups,” Michaud says.
Michaud predicts many of these kids will qualify for an IEP. Somersworth has expanded its preschool program and hired additional support staff as a result.
Schools report other cases of students struggling as a result of disrupted schooling and services during the pandemic, but it’s also uncertain how many of those evaluations will lead to a disability diagnosis and special ed services.
“It’s going to be really hard for some [evaluation] teams,” says Rebecca Forrestall, a former student services director who now works with the N.H. School Board Association.
“One of the questions you have to work through is whether or not that child has had access to appropriate instruction, ” Forrestall says. “The problem with the pandemic is that there’s been learning loss for nearly everyone to a certain extent.”
School districts have access to millions of dollars in federal COVID relief aid to help address learning loss during the pandemic, including for students with special education needs. But a chronic shortage of special education staff to conduct the evaluations and provide those services will put stress on districts.
And it could mean long waits for students in need of the right diagnosis and support.
“This was a challenge in New Hampshire prior to the pandemic,” says Jane Bergeron, who directs the N.H. Association of Special Education Administrators. “An increase in referrals is just going to make that situation even more difficult.”