ANN ARBOR, Mich. – While parents and teachers are trying to maneuver virtual learning, parents of students with disabilities are trying to navigate growing barriers between their children and the accommodations they need to learn.
That’s where Ann Arbor Individual Disability Education Advocacy comes in. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit organization works with individuals with disabilities and guides Washtenaw County families through the special education system to make sure children with disabilities can access services and resources.
During a global pandemic, and with many school districts changing their plans for school in the fall, making sure students with disabilities have the right resources is an even bigger challenge.
Heather Eckner, the A2IDEAS founder and executive director, said that although districts pivoted to online learning earlier in the summer, parents of students with disabilities were kept in limbo as schools tried to figure out if obligations to students were waived due to the pandemic.
She said that while these parents waited, the pandemic created a lot of confusion and what she described as a “wait-and-see” approach as to how schools would tackle special education.
Michigan school districts were allowed to formulate their own plans, which led to what Eckner called a “mixed bag” of what was actually offered to families.
“Some districts were trying to really provide services. The direct services that kids get, they [school districts] were trying to do them virtually,” said Eckner, adding that other districts were less accommodating and offered minimal help to families.
Despite a gradual increase in the number of families A2IDEAS has helped over the years, Eckner said that calls were down over the summer while parents waited for school districts.
But with back-to-school looming, calls are picking up; however, there is still a lack of clarity as to what resources students will be able to get. Eckner said that there is also a lot of concern from parents about the compounded impact that their children may experience without access to resources.
“It is a setback for all students, but there are some really specific deep concerns with families of students with disabilities, and there aren’t clear directions being given yet for what they can do,” said Eckner.
She said that for students who may have behavioral challenges, for example, the uncertainty of the pandemic and lack of services could lead to unsafe situations so being able to get families the resources they need is necessary.
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With a background in teaching, Eckner understands that school personnel are forced to operate in a system, but she said that system needs to be changed.
“We’ve always recognized the need for systems change and advocating at a systems level. That has really reshaped and refocused our efforts since COVID-19 came along,” said Eckner.
She stated that the need to change the education system became even more evident during the pandemic as families waited on schools, schools waited on systems, and systems waited for state and federal policies before acting.
Through A2IDEAS, she is talking with other groups across the state on how they can reshape the Michigan special educational system in a way that still works for stakeholders but also for individuals and families.
For that to happen, Eckner said that there needs to be more funding for special education and that learning loss must be addressed. She and others at the nonprofit are working to not only work with families but to also reach out to residents through grassroots efforts to raise awareness and help to reshape policies about recovery services for the learning lost during the pandemic.
Eckner said that the system is so complicated, even for families with the means to navigate it, that they don’t even know what services to utilize or how to ask for them. Part of A2IDEAS’ advocacy work is to raise awareness and empower families to work with the system while also combatting an equity problem in access to resources.
A2IDEAS also works with school administrators and other groups to have discussions and address reoccurring issues. Eckner is currently working on a process document for school districts and families that gives practical steps in forming recovery services for special education students.
The nonprofit also works to figure out where school systems, and policymakers, are failing to address issues in special education, and how they can begin to work on issues including funding, resource equity, and meeting student and family needs.
Learn more about the assistance offered by A2IDEAS on its website.