Transcription of the episode “Vulnerable students’ needs and rights in pandemic: Threats and opportunities”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi, I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Our guest today is Diana MTK Autin. Diana is Executive Co-director of the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. She’s also Co-director of the National Center on Leadership and Family Professional Partnerships and Executive Director of PLACE,  the National Center for Parent Leadership Advocacy and Community Empowerment. Welcome, Diana. 

Diana A: [00:00:41] Thanks for having me.

Jon M: [00:00:43] Diana, your organizations help parents of the most vulnerable children advocate for their own children and for systemic improvements. What are some of the ways that you do this?

Diana A: [00:00:53] One of the most important ways that we do this is by building the capacity of parents from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to advocate at all levels of the system, both for their own individual children, for other children in their community, in schools, and also at systemic levels at state and national institutions. We also provide information and resources to families to help them understand how systems work, how to navigate in those systems, and also how to make those systems more effective. And then, finally, we provide professional development for people who work within systems to help them be able to work more effectively with families from diverse backgrounds, and also to have them welcome diverse parent voices at decision making tables, including the tables that are set up to help make systems better.

Amy H-L: [00:01:47] How is the pandemic in general and the switch to distance learning specifically impacting these children and families?

Diana A: [00:01:57] One of the things that we have seen happen is the distance learning and the reactions to the pandemic by schools really exacerbating some of the existing inequities that we have seen for many, many years.

In the districts that have the resources and that are serving children whose parents have resources, they’re doing generally a pretty effective job of helping those children be able to keep up with their learning and continue to succeed in the academic environment. Even for those children, there are challenges for social emotional development and relationships.

But in districts that have fewer access to resources or for families that have fewer access to resources, we are seeing those children being left out and left behind. Families that don’t have a computer at home, for example, or families that don’t have access to enough internet to be able to access the distance learning that schools are providing families. Families that don’t understand the material themselves because they’re not highly educated or because they are not literate in English. Those families are not able to help their children at home. Those families are not able to provide the resources their children need to learn at home and schools and districts have not done a sufficient job of identifying the children and families that need additional resources and need additional help in order to be able to succeed.

Jon M: [00:03:34] So what would be some of the specific things that you’d like to see some of the local communities, school districts and schools, that aren’t doing a really good job at this point? What are some of the things that they could be doing immediately to reduce these impacts?

Diana A: [00:03:50] Well, the first thing is to actually have school personnel reach out to parents to find out what the situation is at home. Does the family have access to the equipment that is needed for the student to be able to access the distance learning? Does the family have sufficient access to internet? Do they understand how to access the free internet services that many providers are enabling families to access during this difficult time? Do they understand English? Do they understand the subject matter? Do they have the education to be able to help their children at home? What do they need to be able to be more effective? You know, would a, would a weekly check in with the math teacher and the English teacher and the social studies teacher and the science teacher help them be able to support their children at home? What’s the current status of what’s happening at home? Is the family even able to stay at home? Is the older sibling having to take care of younger children because the parent or parents still must go out to work? So first doing an assessment of what the situation is for the family in terms of their being able to access the learning for their children.

The second thing is to then fill the gaps. In one district in New Jersey, in Newark, for example, they gave every single student a Chromebook to be able to access that learning and do their assignments, et cetera. They knew that they were in a community where many families did not have access to a computer at home, and so they made that available to every student. Also, filling the gap could mean setting up support among parents, helping parents virtually, helping parents who have less understanding or less access to information to help their child, connecting them with other parents who might be able to provide support. Another thing would be to provide peer to peer support. And this also would help in terms of the lack of emotional connections that many students are reporting. Even after a full day of classes, they’re  telling their teachers, can we please stay on and just talk as a classroom, we feel lonely and isolated. So assessing the needs, filling the gaps.

And then I would say really thinking longterm crisis because when schools started doing the distance learning, many of them were thinking it was going to be for a short amount of time. Now we know it’s likely to be for a long amount of time, and so I think schools need to talk with parents and with teachers and with social workers and advocates to figure out how do we do a better job to meet the needs in a situation where children will be accessing this distance learning for a much longer period of time than we had originally anticipated. 

Amy H-L: [00:06:51] So what actions do you recommend that parents and the advocates can take to get schools to do more of these things that you’re recommending? 

Diana A: [00:07:02] Well, the first thing is I think parents should find out what their state departments of education and the federal Department of Education have said schools are required to do. It’s very important for parents to be armed with the knowledge about the kinds of expectations they should be having for schools. I think starting off with an understanding of what the school should be doing is very helpful in reaching out to schools to ask them to provide the services and supports that their children need.

I would also recommend that they reach out to family-serving organizations that might be able to give them some information about what schools are supposed to be doing and effective strategies to communicate with schools. For example, every state has at least one Parent Training and Information Center, and those parent centers, even though we’re all working from home, are still answering parent calls and parent questions, and we’re serving parents of children that either have disabilities or special needs or are at risk, so we can provide families with lots of information about how to advocate with their school. Also, the, the National PTA has some resources on their website about how to reach out and talk with schools. So reaching out to the advocacy organizations, the parent organizations, your local PTA or other parent organization in your community. That’s a great way to start.

Secondly, you can never get what you need if you don’t ask for it. And so now’s a great time to reach out to the school and talk about what’s happening with your child at home and ask for additional help if you need it. And I would say start with your child’s teacher. You know, going up the chain of command is always a good way to do advocacy. So reach out first to your child’s teacher or teachers and ask them how they can help you. The principal is another place to go if your child has an Individualized Education Program because they have a disability, reaching out to their special education teacher or their case manager if they have one, and then going to the superintendent if you don’t get satisfaction with the teachers, the principal and other professionals in the school. I think that one of the things that we know is a good indicator of whether or not a school or district is interested in supporting parents at this difficult time is whether or not you can find their contact information on their website. And so if you can’t find contact information other than the school telephone number that nobody is answering on the website, then going up that chain of command and reaching out to your state department of education and simply asking how can I communicate with my child’s school, my child’s school district, when I can’t find contact information on the website? Again, I would always start off by assuming that people are interested in helping you and providing what you need. Because this is a difficult time for everyone, parents as well as teachers and principals and district staff and state officials.

Jon M: [00:10:18] And we’re going to, we will list on our website the resources that you’ve just mentioned and some of the others that you’ve sent to us. So that’ll be one place that people can look.

Diana A: [00:10:29] Partly depending upon whether or not your child, you know, what the  issues that your child is facing, maybe, a disability and then the National Center for Parent Information and Resources has lots of great information. If it’s a mental health challenge or behavioral challenge, the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health has great information. If your child has special health care needs, then Family Voices and the National Center for Leadership and Family Professional Partnerships has great resources and tips and tools and strategies. So there’s lots. And then, of course, as I said, the National Parent Teacher Association has wonderful resources as well. 

Jon M: [00:11:07] Great. We’ll list these.

Amy H-L: [00:11:09] How have the actions taken by Congress and the administration in response to the coronavirus affected these vulnerable children and their families in both positive and negative ways?

Diana A: [00:11:22] Well, I’ll start out with some positive ways. So there’s been a significant infusion of dollars into state education departments and districts and schools in the legislation. That money is coming a little bit more slowly than we would have hoped. It’s more difficult than one might think to give away huge chunks of new money, especially when the people who are accepting the money are not in their offices and some of them are also at home with their own children, who are home from school. So you know there’s, there’s money that’s coming down the pike to sate departments of education, to districts and to schools, including money that should help with some of these technology needs to support families. There’s also some more flexibility about kind of reallocating some of the money to things like technology.

So you know, schools, Title One, which is for low income children. They may not have had a lot of money in their program for technology, but there’s flexibility to be able to repurpose some of these funds in ways that can meet current needs. So helping low income families access computers and the internet, for example.

There’s also more money for food programs so that children and families can access food. You’re in this time when they’re away from school. We know many, many low and moderate income children around the country rely on the school breakfast and lunch program for two out of three of the meals that they eat during the day, so having more resources there is also important.

 It’s also important that the legislation provides that families can take sick and family and medical leave paid sick and family medical leave to be able to stay at home with your children. And that’s if their children are up to age 18 or if their child has a disability, 18 and over. And this is really important because if families have to stay at home with their children because the schools are closed, the childcare is closed, the adult program is closed, and that means they can’t work, if they didn’t have paid sick and family leave under the  Families First and CARES Acts, then they would be in a situation where they would be not able to continue to support their families. So those aspects of the law that provide for that leave as well as enhancing unemployment insurance for those who are unemployed, extending the amount of time and adding money to the unemployment benefits. So those really have been helpful for families who have children. Those really basically went into effect April 1st so hopefully we’ll see a really positive impact of that.

So those are some of the positives. There are also some significant negatives. One of the negatives is that the legislation has opened the issue of waivers of education requirements. So one of the things that was actually in the CARES Act was the ability of the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to waive the testing or assessment and accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act,  ESSA, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act…

Jon M: [00:14:51] And for people who may be less familiar with that, it’s the successor to No Child Left Behind. 

Diana A: [00:14:55] That’s right. Yup. So it’s the law that provides the funding for general education students, for low income students, education funding for students with limited English proficiency, et cetera. So it’s really the kind of package of education rules and funding for the majority of students in the public schools. So that waiver is somewhat understandable because it is not really possible for schools to do the assessments that they are required to do under ESSA and or by their state law when children are out of school and can’t come together, you know, for a mass testing day. However, there are some provisions in that waiver that open up some real concerns moving forward. And so advocates are cautious about what will happen when the emergency situation is over and really wanting to make sure that all of those requirements, including the requirements to do things like track how well limited English learner students are doing in school and track the kind of nonacademic progress on things like the school environment or discipline, et cetera, other kinds of criteria that schools use as part of their ESSA accountability system. 

In addition, there is a provision in the law which requires the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to come back to Congress within 30 days of passage of the law with her wishlist for other waivers. And this could be additional waivers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA. And it could also be waivers to the Perkins Act, which is around vocational and career and technical education. And it could be waivers around the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which affects students with disabilities, or the Vocational Rehabilitation  Act, which also protects the rights of students with disabilities in school. And so we’ve learned that the Department of Education is moving quickly to put together their list of waivers that they would like to see in the legislation.

And even though the language of the statute says that it would be for the time period of this emergency related to Covid-19 we know we’re talking about an administration that has already eviscerated key civil rights laws and protections. And so we never want to open up the possibility of waiving or minimizing or reducing civil rights protections, which the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act are. And so a significant coalition of advocacy organizations including, but not limited to disability organizations and civil rights organizations like the Urban League, the NAACP, the National Women’s Law Center, the National PTA, the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities, National PLACE, and others have sent letters opposing waivers to Secretary DeVos, the Secretary of Education, the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Mark Schultz, and the Director of the Office of Special Education Programs, Laurie VanderPloeg, requesting that they not submit a request for waivers to these important laws. 

Unfortunately, what we have heard is that they are moving apace and are planning to submit their requests long before the 30 days are out, so I will share the information about how to reach out to Betsy and Mark and Laurie, their email addresses, and also let you know that once that is submitted, there are two committees in each of the houses of Congress that need to be contacted, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the Senate, which is chaired by Lamar Alexander, a Republican. The ranking member is Patty Murray of Washington state. And also in the Senate, the Committee on Appropriations, which is chaired by Richard Shelby of Alabama. And ranking member Pat Leahy of Vermont. And then the Committee on Education and Labor in the House, which is chaired by Bobby Scott of Virginia. And the ranking member is Virginia Foxx of North Carolina. And the Committee on Appropriations, which is chaired by Nita Lowey of New York, and the ranking member is Kay Granger of Texas. So those are the four committees that the Secretary’s report is required to be submitted to. And so those will be the people that need to be contacted to strongly urge no additional waivers to education laws during this crisis.

Jon M: [00:20:18] So to add a very brief, new thing in terms of the positives, which is not directly education-related, but will certainly impact a lot of families, is that apparently the government has just agreed to make phone calls for people who are in federal detention or federal prison free, and to extend the time that they can talk. And this, as far as I know, applies both to people who’ve been convicted of crimes and also should apply to ICE detainees. It doesn’t, at this point, seem to apply to state and county jails. So that may be something that people will want to push for because obviously this can just improve families’ ability to communicate with each other as they try to deal with all these issues.

Diana A: [00:21:10] And this is a particularly important issue. Being able to communicate with people who are in institutions. Because we know that when institutions are not under the eye of advocates and families, that they’re more likely to engage in behavior that is extremely harmful to people who are in those institutions, whether they are jails or juvenile institutions, or group homes, or nursing homes, et cetera. And so having the  ability to talk to your family member who is in an institution is really critical to help as much as possible, maximize their safety during this difficult time. 

Jon M: [00:21:57] And I just wanted to accentuate, since clearly the request to  DeVos’s department aren’t likely to go very far in terms of the waivers and that the chances are that the Republicans in the Senate aren’t going to be particularly responsive either, although you can always hope, but the importance of listeners really contacting the people you mentioned in the House and also their own representatives in the House, who of course can talk to the people who chair these committees and to Nancy Pelosi and the other leadership of the House. 

Diana A: [00:22:32] Well, in fact, we think one of the things that is encouraging is that initially in the legislation, it gave Betsy Devos authority to waive provisions of these civil rights laws, IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act. So we were able to, even with the Republicans in the Senate, we were able to stop that language from getting in the bill. So I think we, you know, I would definitely certainly prioritize people in the House of Representatives, but I wouldn’t give up on the Senate either. Traditionally, disability issues have been something  that people have been able to work on across the aisles. It’s been more challenging in the, in this current administration, but I would definitely contact your senators as well.

I think one of, one of the other things that has been difficult in the legislation is that there are whole populations of people that are kept out of the legislation in terms of these provisions around, you know, the taxpayer checks, for example, et cetera. And so, you know, you have undocumented immigrants in many parts of our country. Certainly in my state, in New Jersey, we have a very significant number of immigrants and undocumented immigrants. And some of the positive provisions of these laws that do not apply at all, so they can’t take advantage of those provisions of the law even though the vast majority of undocumented immigrants pay taxes and social social security taxes and take advantage of many fewer benefits than citizens and immigrants who have documentation. So I think that this kind of divide between the haves and the have nots can also be exacerbated by the omission of certain populations from the coverage of these provisions. And, and there are organizations around the country, immigrant advocacy organizations, civil rights organizations that are advocating very strongly for the next federal stimulus package, number four, which we know is coming, to expand the protections and the benefits to that very important population in our country.

Amy H-L: [00:24:43] You spoke about one group in particular of youth that are having specific problems with the pandemic, and these are those students with disabilities for whom this would normally be the year of transition, transitioning from school life to community life. 

Diana A: [00:25:06] That’s one of the most challenging situations that families and youth with disabilities are facing right now. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires students starting at age 16… in many states, like mine, it starts at 14…under the federal law, starting at age 16, to have as part of their education their transition to adult life plan, and this is supposed to be helping them learn the knowledge, the skills, the tools to be able to navigate the world, the world of work, the world of postsecondary education, their community, civic participation, learning how to vote, learning how to, to get around heir own neighborhood and their in their town, doing job sampling. learning how to write resumes, learning how to interview with employers, learning how to interview, submit applications to post secondary education. And those are all things that really can’t be done virtually.

So we have a whole group of students for whom this is their last year of school entitlement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, who basically are missing the last four months of school, and not only aren’t learning those transition skills, but in fact what we’re hearing from families, many of them are regressing because they are stuck at home, they are not able to get out about, they’re not able to practice skills that they might have learned earlier in the year. And so these young people will be in a situation of graduating but graduating probably worse off than they were when they started this this school year, which was to have been their last school year.

So we’re advocating and asking families to advocate nationally first that all of the students for whom this should have been their last year of education be granted an additional year, or at least an additional half of a school year, just as a matter of course, so that they are able to work on those skills and continue to learn what they need to know to be able to become independent, productive, contributing members of our communities and our society. In addition, states could also make that decision.

So in addition to the U S Department of Education being able to decide that all of those youth and young adults are entitled to additional schooling, each individual, state, and territory, and Washington D C could make that determination for their own students who are in this final year of transition. And so at the same time that we’re beginning this campaign to get the US department of education to extend that schooling automatically, we’re also beginning to ask families and advocates to reach out to their state departments of education to get their state departments to automatically extend that.

And finally, if neither of those strategies works, then we are creating some tools for families to use to advocate individually for their own child to be able to get compensatory education services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provides that if students’ Individualized Education Programs are not implemented for more than 10 days, then those students can be eligible for compensatory education if being without their services has resulted in them not learning the knowledge and skills that they should have learned according to their education plan. And so we’re creating these tools that parents will be able to use to reach out to their own schools and districts to demonstrate what the impact of this has been on their child and what services their child went without, for how long, and then what amount of time for what services they’re requesting for compensatory education. So those tools will soon be available at, which is our SPAN website. But we’ll also be sharing those tools with other parent centers around the country, through the Center for Parent Information and Resources, So that will be probably by next week, those resources will be available.

Jon M: [00:29:35] What do you see as the longterm impacts of this crisis?

Diana A: [00:29:42] For those districts that use this time to develop stronger relationships with families, a longterm impact could be more effective parent- professional collaboration down the line. That is happening in some places and it’s happening in some places very well. Families, some families are reporting to us that they have never had the kind of contact and communication with their child’s teachers, principal, and other professionals as they’ve been having during this period, and that would be a wonderful thing to happen. 

Another thing that could happen is that parents could learn how to navigate, particularly underserved parents, could learn how to navigate and use technology in order to partner with their child’s school and also support their child’s learning at home. For districts that are doing a good job of getting resources to families and helping families learn, then that could be a very important impact of this in the long run.

We also have some fears about what kind of longterm implications this could have. As I mentioned before, the education that students are getting, and not just students with disabilities, but English Language Learners, low income students, students that have challenging behaviors, students that already have some social emotional weaknesses, the education that they’re getting is not the same as they were getting when they were in school. And so for those students who can’t learn effectively through virtual learning, who aren’t kind of independent learners, they’re going to have lost, in many cases, half of the school year of learning. 

In addition, even good students are struggling with the isolation, not being able to be with their peers, not having those peer relationships that is part of growing up, and that reflects ways that children develop and hone social emotional skills and many children and youth who did not have challenging behaviors or any kind of mental health challenges before this are now reporting, and their parents are reporting, some serious breakdowns in children’s and youth mental health. And so that’s very challenging. And especially given the fact that they can’t just go to a therapist, you know, they have to try and access teletherapy, which could be beneficial, but probably not as beneficial as is going to talk to somebody in person. So  the whole issue around social emotional development and mental health challenges, behavioral challenges, this could be something that’s longterm and that we face for a long time into the future.

Another concern is that the whole idea of kind of virtual learning, which is the only way children can learn now. And so, you know, having related services in school, like occupational therapy or physical therapy or speech or you know, some counseling, having that happen virtually. It’s better than nothing, but we also know it’s not as good as having it happen in person.

And so many of us who didn’t want schools to be able to offer tele- therapies before, don’t want them to be able to offer it when we go back to school in person. But we are concerned that to save money, and not to meet students’ needs, but to save money, that the whole idea of this virtual learning may be something that becomes more common and not necessarily with the best outcomes.

And then finally, I think one of the things that we definitely will see is, whether a child is in second grade today or 11th grade today, we’re going to see that gap, that performance gap of rich, white, upper middle class children of well educated parents, et cetera, how they’re performing and what happens to them in post secondary life and what happens to the other children whose parents don’t have a good education or they’re poor, or the children don’t speak English, et cetera, and we know their outcomes will be less than they would have been if they had been in school. So we’ll see this. I think the gap in learning and achievement is going to widen and it’s going to take, I think, many years to start to narrow that again.

Jon M: [00:34:27] Thank you, Diana MTK Autin, of SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, and thank you, listeners. Check out our website, for more episodes and articles. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews so you can easily navigate the content and to support use in professional development. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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