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11.23.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York (“AFC”) and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP filed a class action complaint in federal court against the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) and New York State Education Department (“NYSED”) on behalf of students with disabilities who have not received an appropriate education during the time of remote learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs are asking the Court to require the DOE to create a system to provide make-up educational services to address the resulting learning loss.

When schools closed their physical spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of students with disabilities in New York City were – and still are – unable to access appropriate services and programs during remote learning.  The loss in education and progress for these students becomes more pronounced every day that they do not receive all of the services mandated on their Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) in a way that is accessible and appropriate in consideration of each student’s disability.  For students with disabilities who are English Language or Multilingual Learners, or whose parents do not speak English, the challenges of accessing remote learning have been even more significant.

Chrystal Bell, one of the parents named as a plaintiff in the litigation, has a son who is deaf, blind, and non-verbal. As Ms. Bell explains, “My son cannot see, hear, or speak. How can he be expected to learn sitting in front of a computer all day, when he has no way to interact with his teachers or understand what they’re asking of him? My child just turned 21 and will now be considered too old to remain in his DOE high school. Without compensatory services, he will have lost more than a year of his education that he will never be able to get back.”

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), school districts must provide a free and appropriate education (“FAPE”) to all students with disabilities. When the school district fails to do so, the law requires that they must provide “compensatory services” to make up for the education and therapies that the student lost.  Although the widespread inability of the students to access their IEP-mandated services and program during remote learning has resulted in a denial of FAPE in violation of the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and New York Education Law, the DOE has not announced any plans — in the eight months since schools closed – to develop a system for identifying which students with disabilities require compensatory services, determining what services they need, and providing those services.

The complaint filed today asks that the DOE create an expedited and efficient process to provide make-up services for the instruction and services students with disabilities have lost during the period of remote learning, rather than requiring that each of the tens of thousands of parents of students with disabilities litigate individually to receive the services their children need and require.

Kim Sweet, Executive Director of AFC, explained, “Tens of thousands of students with disabilities have gone months without appropriate educational services, with many losing the progress they had made.  These students should receive the compensatory services they need as quickly as possible, without having to jump through cumbersome legal hurdles that will favor families able to afford lawyers and leave economically disadvantaged students behind.”

“We’re pleased to partner with AFC on this important class action, to attempt to rectify the disparities in education that students with disabilities have encountered in New York City due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Joshua Kipnees, Partner at Patterson Belknap. “City students with disabilities have been denied access to an appropriate education for the better part of a year, and we hope that today’s complaint brings justice and essential compensatory services to these students as quickly as possible.”

View the press release [PDF]
Read the class action complaint [PDF]

11.20.2020 | Today, AFC is testifying before the New York City Council Committee on Education’s hearing about the critical need for social-emotional and mental health support for students, and the City's commitment to remove police from schools and craft a new vision of school safety that ensures all students are truly safe and supported. Read our testimony [PDF]

10.23.2020 | Today, AFC is testifying before the New York City Council Committee on Education about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education of NYC’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities, many of whom cannot engage in remote instruction or services independently and many of whom simply are not getting what they need to learn. Read our testimony [PDF]

10.16.2020 | Today, AFC is testifying before the New York City Council Committee on Education and Committee on Health regarding the reopening of City schools. As the City continues working on the health and safety measures needed to protect school communities from COVID-19 this year, the City must also redouble its outreach efforts and provide individualized support to families of students who are not regularly engaging in remote learning. Read our testimony [PDF]

09.16.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York joins 30 organizations in calling on Mayor de Blasio to address the urgent educational needs of students who are homeless as the school year begins.  We are urging the City to develop a coordinated interagency plan and designate a point person to work across agencies to ensure that every student who is homeless can participate in learning this year.

The urgent unresolved issues that the City must address include the following concerns:

Although the City is expecting students to learn remotely from two to five days per week, there are city shelters where no children have access to online learning due to lack of connectivity and other shelters where connectivity is limited.  While we appreciate that the City prioritized distributing iPads with free cellular data to students living in shelters, the iPads do not work in some shelters because they do not have adequate cellular reception or WiFi.

Under city policy, students under 18 cannot remain in shelter units without a parent, but there is no child care plan for days of remote learning when parents need to work.  While we are pleased that Learning Bridges will give priority to students who are homeless, among other groups of students, we understand the programs will have very limited capacity and that seats are open only to students through 8th grade.

Many families in shelter have not yet received information about bus service despite the legal obligation to provide transportation to students who are homeless.

Although the City oversees the shelters where thousands of students live, the City has done little work to address the barriers that students and families who are homeless faced in accessing remote learning in the spring, and shelter providers have not received the resources or information needed to effectively support students in accessing education.

We are confident these issues are solvable if only the City would task someone with working across agencies to tackle them. Over the past six years, this Administration has brought increased attention and resources to improving the education of students who are homeless. At a time when students who are homeless have already experienced significant learning loss and trauma, please do not leave these students behind. 

Read the letter [PDF]

09.01.2020 | Today, Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), issued the following statement in response to Mayor de Blasio’s announcement delaying the first day of school: 

With so many unanswered questions about the reopening of school buildings, the City needs to use this additional time to develop robust plans for supporting students in the year ahead, particularly the students with the greatest needs. Remote learning was disastrous for many students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students experiencing homelessness this past spring; given that all students will continue to learn remotely at least some of the time for the foreseeable future, the DOE must develop and implement strategies to improve online instruction. Also, the transition to a hybrid model poses a slew of new challenges that have yet to be addressed. For example:

  • Approximately 50,000 students with disabilities, along with students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care, have a legal right to transportation, but the City has still not finalized any bus contracts. Families of these students need to know how their children will get to school, and many cannot front the cost of transportation or send their children alone on the subway if busing is not in place by the first day of class.
  • The City must ensure all students have the technology they need; distributing iPads is just the first step. Some family shelters, for example, have no WiFi and limited-to-nonexistent cellular reception, making it difficult for students in shelter to actually use those iPads to participate in remote learning.
  • The City must improve communication with families and ensure parents receive information in a language they can understand. When schools closed in March, many immigrant families and others were left in the dark. Parents cannot be expected to supervise and support their children’s remote instruction unless they have two-way communication with their schools.
  • Ensuring all students receive the support they need to learn under a blended model must be a top priority. It remains unclear how schools will staff integrated co-teaching (ICT) classes, schedule related service sessions, and otherwise ensure all students with disabilities receive their mandated special education instruction and services when they are only in the building 1-3 days per week. Similarly, the DOE has not put forward a meaningful plan for supporting English Language Learners, many of whom struggle to make progress in the absence of in-person supports, or a plan for connecting students with mental health services.


Read the statement
[PDF]

08.31.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children and Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) shared recommendations with Chancellor Carranza for a developing reopening plans are trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, grounded in restorative practices, and geared towards developing healing-centered school communities. The 2019-2020 school year presented historic challenges to the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) and the 2020-2021 school year is presenting similar, if not greater, challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, amplified by systemic racism, has disproportionately harmed historically marginalized groups within the DOE community. As school community members face incalculable hardship, fostering a healthy and safe school climate for all students in every learning setting is of the utmost importance.

Read the letter [PDF]

Special Education Recommendations cover image

08.18.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children of New York released a set of essential recommendations for New York City’s school reopening plan, urging the Department of Education (DOE) to ensure that students with disabilities have the support they need when schools reopen, whether they are learning in a school building or remotely. 

The closure of school buildings last spring was especially difficult for New York City’s students with disabilities, who depend on schools for a range of specialized services and therapies—some of which can be quite challenging, if not impossible, to deliver remotely—in addition to academic instruction. Without consistent services and a structured school day, many fell behind their peers or lost skills that they had previously mastered. As the DOE prepares for the 2020-21 school year, it is critical that it address the barriers that prevented many students with disabilities from accessing remote learning last semester and put forward a plan for helping those who have fallen behind get caught up. 

The recommendations include urging the City to:

  • Offer full-time in-person instruction to all students in special education classes whose families want that option. By their very nature, these classes are already small in size and serve students with significant needs who may have particular difficulty engaging in remote learning.
  • Improve remote instruction and service delivery, including deploying educators already trained in evidence-based literacy instruction to provide small-group support to struggling readers on days they are learning remotely. The fact that students are no longer limited by the four walls of the school building offers a unique opportunity to match staff already trained in delivering evidence-based reading interventions with students who need extra help, regardless of where they happen to attend school.
  • Hold meetings with parents to develop an individualized plan for each student with a disability prior to the start of the school year. For students receiving in-person instruction part-time, schools should collaborate with families in their home language to determine what instruction and services should be provided during the student’s days in school, and what should be offered on the days they are learning remotely, in order to maximize use of their limited in-person time. These plans should also address the support parents need in order to help their child with remote learning. 
  • Provide robust behavioral and mental health supports to all students who need them, including those who have experienced COVID-related trauma or who need help readjusting to the school environment after months at home, refrain from police interventions, and limit exclusionary discipline.
  • Ensure all health and safety protocols take into account the unique needs of students with disabilities and provide supports and accommodations to those who have difficulty complying with new requirements, such as those around mask-wearing and social distancing. In addition, as schools look to repurpose every available space, they must be mindful of the needs of students and educators with physical disabilities, given that the majority of City school buildings are not fully accessible.
  • Provide compensatory services to make up for the instruction and services students missed while school buildings were closed.
  • Ensure the City’s new “Learning Bridges” child care programs provide support for students with disabilities and expand eligibility to include high school students with disabilities, some of whom are unable to stay alone while their parents work and require adult assistance in order to participate in remote learning.

“The pandemic created huge challenges for special education that require the City schools to respond with creative thinking, flexibility, and a commitment to collaborating with families to a greater extent than ever before,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of AFC. “We all need to do everything we can to make sure this pandemic does not leave students with disabilities even further behind.”

View the press release [PDF]
Read the recommendations [PDF]

08.04.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children joins more than 30 organizations in reminding the Mayor and the City of its legal obligation to provide transportation for students who are homeless, and expressing our disappointment that the City’s school reopening plan does not prioritize students who are homeless for in-person instruction. The current plans for reopening schools in the fall will be unworkable for many families experiencing homelessness, who are not permitted to leave their children in shelters during the day while they work or address other urgent family needs.

Read the letter [PDF]

06.24.2020 | Today, Advocates for Children joined more than 20 organizations calling on the DOE to appoint a senior-level leader to focus full-time on students in foster care and to honor its Fiscal Year 2020 commitment “to ensure bussing for students in foster care” and guarantee that students in foster care, who have a legal right to transportation between their foster homes and schools, are provided door-to-door transportation going forward. The pandemic has further demonstrated the need for a staff member who has expertise in the specific rights and needs of these students, can serve as a point person for schools and foster care agencies, and can ensure that DOE policies take into account students in care.

Read the letter [PDF]