Memphis mom and SCS share challenges and successes of special education in the pandemic

Victoria Kintner-Duffy’s daughter is 6 1/2 and was first diagnosed with autism when she was 4. A formal diagnosis took a year and the process to try—and fail—to get an IEP took just as long.

IEPs or Individualized Education Plan are developed for students in public schools who meet special education eligibility criteria, which are established by each state. IEPs are created through meetings with parents, administrators, and teachers who identify the best supports and learning practices to meet each child’s unique needs.

“She was officially diagnosed at five in kindergarten. It was tough then because she was not at a public school, she was in regular childcare. She didn’t qualify for an IEP yet,” said Kintner-Duffy.

Kintner-Duffy's daughter is now a first grader at Campus School at the University of Memphis, which is part of the Shelby County School system.

To get an IEP, Kitner-Duffy, her daughter’s teachers, and school administrators had to meet at least three times. Tennessee laws dictate that the process from request of an IEP through approval and plan development should take a maximum of 90 days. Due to COVID-19,  Kitner-Duffy said it's taken her a full year.
Victoria Kintner-Duffy's daughter (pictured in background) was diagnosed with autism over two years ago. She was recently rejected for special education services and an individualized education plan. She believes it's due in part to virtual learning. (Ziggy Mack)
“During a normal time period, it’s a long, complicated process to get things started and now with COVID-19, it’s a lot of emails, scanning, and slow response,” she said.

“We were excited to enter the public school system because then there were services,” she said. “I think the thing that has been hard is the bureaucracies and legalities of the process.”

Kitner-Duffy and her family are not the only ones struggling this school year. The problem extends beyond special needs students in SCS and Tennessee. It extends beyond students with autism and includes students with physical and learning delays, gifted learners, and students with visual and hearing deficits.

Per the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2018-2019, more than seven million students in U.S. public schools—or 14%—received special education services under the Individuals with Special Education Act.

After multiple meetings, Kitner-Duffy found out in early December that her daughter did not qualify for an IEP. She said the state has specific criteria to meet their definition of disability due to autism and it has to affect her daughter’s academics.

“She’s behind in reading but she is doing average in class. So she doesn’t qualify,” she said.

Kitner-Duffy thinks the denial is in part because her daughter’s autistic needs are primarily social and behavioral. With virtual school, the issues she'd experience in a traditional academic environment don’t need to be addressed at this time.

Overall, Kitner-Duffy thinks her daughter has had a so-so school year.

“I’m trying to have some perspective. It’s a pandemic and for the most part, everyone is in it and everyone is affected by it somehow. There are people who are disproportionately affected. My expectation was that this school year was never going to be a great school year,” she said.

Kitner-Duffy said her child’s school administrators and teachers are doing the best they can, but she wishes the district would communicate better and offer more specific communications for students with special needs. She said texts from SCS seem to be general information.

Even with the struggles she's faced, Kitner-Duffy said she does acknowledge her privilege.

It takes time, money, and resources to pursue a diagnosis, complete the state's IEP process, and advocate for a child throughout. In a city where the childhood poverty rate is 35% and in some neighborhoods that number bumps to a full 85%, some children will never get the help they need without drastic, system-wide changes. In the pandemic, the hurdles are higher.

“I’m married, we're both employed, were white, we have family in town, we're educated. It’s easier for me to say, 'OK, here’s this problem, we will figure this out,'" said Kitner-Duffy.

"...I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who is not like me—someone who is Black or a single parent or unemployed or does shift work and can’t be at the house and a combination of those together. There are a million things that are working against families right now and when you add special needs on top of that, it’s tough."

What SCS is Doing
For students who do have an approved IEP, SCS is still providing customized support virtually.

SCS serves more than 100,000 students across 200 schools. About 26,000 students have above-average needs. More than 1,000 education professionals serve these students.

SCS could not provide a report on how special education or SPED students are doing in aggregate since the pandemic began, as each SPED student is monitored individually.

Over the summer, SCS announced several measures to assist students and parents with special education needs, including sending educational packets home, assisting parents with creating a home learning environment, and virtual IEP meetings.

They launched an extended school year in June for students in functional skills, adaptive functional skills, and SPED preschool programs. In August, they hosted a series of forums for English and Spanish to raise awareness of the district's SPED supports.

In October, SCS proposed a phased return to in-person learning, which includes elementary students and students with disabilities returning to on-campus classes at the beginning of January. All students would return by mid-January, though SCS announced in November that 65% of parents at direct-run schools opted to continue virtually.

Teachers Talk
"High Ground News" spoke with three SPED teachers and two managers in SCS's Exceptional Children and Health Services division about their students' progress this year.

Manager Rebecca Fik said each school has a SPED advisor and IEPs are monitored daily. 

“They know which students need a change in program or IEP,” she said of the SPED teams.

The teachers said the school year is going well overall. There are new resources available to their students and parents online and there has been an increase in communication from parent to teacher and student to teacher.

“They email and talk to me more and they ask more questions,” said Chelsea Cobbins, a SPED teacher at Germantown High School.

“It gives them a chance to speak to us at any time. If [students] don’t have the opportunity to stay after class, if they are up late, if they need me to communicate about another class that they have, I’m able to provide that to them,” she continued.

Cobbins said at least three parents have contacted her saying their students are able to focus more, there are fewer distractions, and they are more relaxed. She said working at home also limits interruptions like changing classes that are challenging for students who are, for example, autistic. 

“They have everything in one place because it’s all there in front of them,” she said.

Support for this article was provided in part by New Memphis. New Memphis’ mission is to forge a more prosperous and vital city by developing, activating, and retaining talent and working to inspire and develop engaged, civically responsible leaders. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.
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Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here