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Oregon: Schools limiting hours for SPED students; not enough staff to meet needs

Mar 24, 2023, NPR: In Oregon, some students with disabilities are fighting 'an uphill battle' to go to school

Democratic state senator Sara Gelser Blouin of Oregon says parents are concerned that some children with disabilities are not getting equal access to school.

Schools implement abbreviated school day programs, she says, when they claim they don’t have adequate staffing to meet student needs. Now she has a bill making its way through the state legislative session that aims to address the issue.

“Some students don’t even get to start kindergarten with a full day of school,” she says. “They are welcomed to elementary school by being put on an abbreviated school day… that could be 25 minutes a week of online instruction and that’s it.”

Elizabeth Miller, an education reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting, says parents have been complaining about the practice for years.

“I reported on a family who moved to Idaho instead because their student wasn’t receiving the services they felt they needed,” she says. “It’s a tough situation.”

Full interview transcript

Deepa Fernandes: “A lawmaker in Oregon says the state is not meeting its requirement to provide an equal education to all children.

“Democratic State Senator Sara Gelser Blouin says she’s heard from parents that some students with disabilities are getting limited time in the classroom because schools claim they don’t have the staffing to support their needs.

“The State Department of Education says these “abbreviated school day programs” should be used rarely, when no full day school placement can meet a student’s individual needs.

“Senator Gelser Blouin has introduced legislation that aims to address the issue and she joins us now. Senator, welcome to Here & Now.”

Sara Gelser Blouin: “Thank you so much for having me.”

Fernandes: “So, Senator, I wonder if you can begin by explaining to us this idea of a reduced day plan. It’s not that students with disabilities are getting kicked out of school for behavior, as happens in some other places. They’re actually starting school with a plan that says they will have a reduced amount. Is that correct?”

Gelser Blouin: “That is absolutely correct. These are not students that have been suspended or expelled. They are just students who have been told that the schools are not able to serve them all day.”

Fernandes: “And why is that?”

Gelser Blouin: “The districts say that they do not have the staffing or the training and that some students are just too difficult to serve in a public school. Some also say that students, because of their special learning needs, learn more if they have less instructional time. And that argument really does not make any sense.”

Fernandes: “It doesn’t make any sense. So how widespread of an issue is this in Oregon?” Gelser Blouin: “So we know that somewhere between 1 and 2% of students with disabilities in Oregon are on an abbreviated school day program. And that accounts for about a thousand students, at a minimum.”

Fernandes: “And what grade levels are impacted here?”

Gelser Blouin: “Most of the children are actually in elementary school: kindergarten, first and second graders. Some students don’t even get to start kindergarten with a full day of school.

They are welcomed to elementary school by being put on an abbreviated school day. And that might even mean not going to school at all. That could be 25 minutes a week of online instruction and that’s it.”

Fernandes: “What types of disabilities do the kids have that you’ve heard about?”

Gelser Blouin: “I have heard of students with down syndrome, children with cerebral palsy, kids that are medically fragile, kids that have autism, kids that have ADHD and kids with general intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Fernandes: “Yet federal law says all children deserve a full time education, correct?” Gelser Blouin: “Yes. Students have had a right to the same number of hours and days as non-disabled students for decades. And I just can’t believe that, in 2023, I am actually fighting an uphill battle to allow disabled children to attend kindergarten.”

Fernandes: “Can you break down for me what your bill would do if it was passed into law?”

Gelser Blouin: “So right now, to get back in school, parents have to go through a lengthy complaint process and our State Department of Education has not been enforcing [it.] This bill simplifies that by stating that if a parent complains about this, it’s clear that they do not consent, and therefore the student needs to be returned to school within five school days. If the superintendent fails to do that, she can have a sanction on her license and the school district can start to lose funds.”

Fernandes: “This is the second year you’ve introduced a bill on this topic and there’s been some pushback. As you said, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Where is the resistance coming from?”

Gelser Blouin: “There is a lot of resistance, it seems, from the Oregon Department of Education, who has not enforced on this measure. One of the things I’m concerned about is that there seems to be an incentive for schools to shorten school days because they get to keep all of the money that is allocated to them to serve these kids full time, even if they’re only serving them a few minutes or a few hours a week.”…

Miller: “I mean, years. There’s been a lawsuit, actually, that was filed in 2019 and a couple of years ago became a class action lawsuit. So that shows you this is not a new problem. It is not just on one school district or a couple of school districts. It’s a statewide thing. You know, for this bill, Senate Bill 819, there was some data pulled from Fact Oregon, which is an organization here, about how many calls they received about shortened school days. And for the 2019-2020 school year, they received a thousand requests for information or support about shortened school days. That doesn’t mean that a thousand Oregon students had a shortened school day, but that just goes to show that there’s a lot of school districts maybe using this.”…

Fernandes: “Elizabeth, what else do we know about how widespread these shortened school days are?”

Miller: “I think we know that it affects a lot of students here in Oregon and having that shortened school day, you know, the majority of shortened school days in Oregon happen in elementary school. And so I think there’s a lot of questions about how that impacts students as they move through their educational career.”…


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