That one morning last fall when the internet connection went down nearly broke Kate Maglothin. Once again, her five kids were adrift without a way to log on for their virtual classes while she attempted to tend to her small business, an ongoing hazard of pandemic life but one that on this day was one problem too many.
The most distressing part: It meant yet another day of uneven, disrupted schooling for Finn, her 7-year-old with a form of cerebral palsy that involves a developmental delay and a severe speech impediment. After the Waterford School District shifted to online class to start the 2020-21 school year, Finn lost a range of support services and personalized lessons he typically received in person. The sudden lack of the assistance he was due meant Maglothin had to step in as teacher and tech support. Sometimes, the stress of it all was too much, she says.
So, when the district decided to resume in-person instruction for some kids requiring special education services, it came as a relief — until Maglothin was told Finn “wasn’t delayed enough” to be one of them. Like many parents of neurodivergent kids left adrift during the pandemic, she began seeking a fix. She filed complaints with both the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, contending that her school district failed to provide the services legally required and, as a result, Finn lost valuable developmental time and experience. “From an academic standpoint, Finn suffered tremendously,” she says.
Indeed, if neurotypical students struggled through the bizarre COVID-19 school year, kids like Finn suffered even more and in more devastating ways, says Michigan Alliance for Families Policy Coordinator Michelle Driscoll. “The instruction lost over the last year has created a learning lag among typically developing students, and that impact is more pronounced for students with disabilities,” she says.
Maglothin’s complaint was not a lawsuit — it asked an administrative body to respond with a solution — but many parents are, in fact, going directly to court. In Ann Arbor, most notably, families of four Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS)students are suing the district and the MDE, alleging AAPS failed to provide lessons and support services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That lawsuit also accuses district administrators of misusing federal special education funds for unrelated purposes and of altering the students’ Individualized Education Plans without notification — specifically by switching to remote instruction. The result, they say, was skill loss and academic regression.
The Ann Arbor lawsuit, which seeks class action status to provide relief for students across the state, is similar to others around the country. One class action filed in New York City against “every school district in the U.S.” includes an assertion that school closings amounted to an inherent denial of appropriate education to students with disabilities.
Brian Hagler of Lansing, like Maglothin, filed a complaint with the MDE. His 10-year-old son, Christopher, who has cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a severe vision impairment, attended only about seven hours of virtual instruction each week. Worse yet, he went without in-person physical therapy for nearly an entire school year, causing his muscles to seize up. Hagler ended up taking his son for therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, creating a long commute that required him to take frequent, sometimes unpaid family medical leave.
The difficulty for parents seeking legal redress is that the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event that couldn’t be anticipated and that resulted in vast unanticipated and unprecedented disruptions, legal analysts say. “Such cases will presumably be found to lack merit due to the unique circumstances of the pandemic,” Detroit education law attorney Mel Souraya writes on her blog.
A similar argument was deployed when AAPS responded to the lawsuit in July. “This action is nothing more than a veiled attempt to contest the temporary closure of schools … due to a global pandemic,” the brief says. “The tremendous efforts by school officials in Michigan and elsewhere to adapt amidst the pandemic should be applauded — not attacked as ‘racketeering.’”
The problem, Driscoll says, is that school districts have now had more than a year to come up with solutions to help make up for the missed instruction and developmental damage. “State guidelines haven’t changed during COVID,” she says. “Schools still have to provide students with a free and appropriate public education, and the gap that remains in services and instruction needs to be made up.” Some states have, in fact, offered solutions. The Pennsylvania Legislature, for instance, passed a measure offering students with individualized education plans an optional additional year of school. New York, Illinois, and New Jersey have passed similar bills.
Plenty of parents, meanwhile — including Hagler — are still fighting to get their children’s needs met. But Maglothin’s story has reached a happy ending. After filing her complaints, she was invited to a meeting with school officials, where the school agreed — without administrative intervention — to bring Finn back to the classroom. He returned partway through the school year and has been thriving, Maglothin says: “Since the moment he was back in person, he’s been making incredible progress.”
This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.