St. Tammany school district settles complaint over COVID-related special education learning losses

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This article was published on by Maria Fazio on June 29, 2021.

At the onset of the pandemic, schools across the country abruptly transitioned to remote learning, scrambling to replicate face-to-face instruction in a virtual setting, often without required technology. More than a year later, some students — including many with disabilities — are still behind.

After the parent of a St. Tammany Parish high schooler with a disability voiced concerns about her child not receiving adequate instruction during remote learning, the Loyola Law Clinic filed a complaint to the state Department of Education in March on behalf of students with disabilities in St. Tammany public schools.

The complaint alleged that there was a “systemic violation of the rights” of special education students who did not receive proper instruction during the remote learning period or the services required to recoup learning losses they suffered during that time.

This week, the law clinic and the St. Tammany school district signed a joint agreement settling the complaint. The agreement, which does not admit wrongdoing, sets guidelines for determining whether a student with an individualized education plan, or IEP, qualifies for additional learning opportunities through the district. Implementation of the guidelines will be monitored by the state.

Though formally signed on Monday, the school district had already begun work to recoup learning losses, said Kimberly Gardner, St. Tammany’s assistant superintendent of students with exceptionalities and federal programs. Last August, all students with IEPs were screened to determine their baselines, Gardner said. They were tested again in February to determine their progress, she said.

Students who did not gain skills at a 25% rate or higher, a percentage previously agreed upon with Loyola, qualified for additional learning opportunities, including accelerated learning camps, tutoring and online lessons. The agreement with Loyola helped ensure parents were aware of the options for their children, Gardner said. According to the agreement, reviews of all students should be finished by May 2022.

”We understand and know that learning loss has occurred,” Gardner said. “We’re beefing up interventions and accelerated learning opportunities so we can quickly close the gaps the pandemic caused.”

Javanda May, the parent who brought the complaint, said in a statement that her son did not receive “accommodations, related services, or really any meaningful education at all during the fourth quarter last year.”

“I understand why schools had to close, but I was floored when told in the fall that my son wasn’t entitled to any additional instruction despite all the schooling he lost,” she said.

Hector Linares, a Loyola professor who filed the complaint, said that some of the learning losses stemmed from teachers providing pre-recorded videos rather than live instruction during the final quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, which did not provide individualized instruction required for many special education students. 

Meredith Mendez, a St. Tammany schools spokesperson, said that the online videos were a necessity at a time when some teachers and students did not have access to technology required for live online classes. Before the 2020-2021 school year, the district ordered 38,000 Chromebooks and provided hotspots to ensure every student and teacher could participate in the event that schools went back to remote learning, she said. 

The Louisiana Department of Education declined to comment on the agreement.

The New York City Department of Education and the Hawaii Department of Education have been sued on behalf of students for learning losses related to the pandemic. Those lawsuits are still ongoing.