We are living in uncertain and unprecedented times. As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc, Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman recently announced that public and charter schools would stay closed for the remainder of the school year. Private schools are following suit.
The abrupt school closures left parents scrambling to find ways to continue providing their children with a quality education at home, often while working from home themselves. Assistance from schools across sectors has varied and parents have had to quickly figure out how to navigate numerous online platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom.
Perhaps hardest hit are students with special needs, many of whom are now completely without any of the services their schools once provided. Hoffman expressed that she is “very concerned about the extra burden school closures place on our students with special needs and their families,” noting that, “The services provided at our schools are critical to their wellness and success.”
Children with special needs need consistent access to services such as physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis, and more in order to learn and grow and thrive. Going without such services could be highly detrimental to their educational growth and well being.
This could be avoided however. Students with special needs who have Individualized Learning
Plans or 504 plans are eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that allow them to use a portion of the state’s per-pupil funding to pay for educational therapies, tutoring, online classes, and more. Empowering families with ESAs gives their children access to these vital services.
Unfortunately, the application window for the Quarter 4 (April through June) has passed.
Currently, the next enrollment deadline is May 1 in order to receive Quarter 1 funding for the
2020-21 school year. Requests that the Arizona Department of Education extend the application window for Quarter 4 — which are set by departmental discretion, not statute — have been denied.
Kids with special needs can’t wait until the next school year to have their needs met. Now that schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year, these children could be left without access to their services for months. The department has the discretion to reopen the enrollment window — or even move to a rolling enrollment — to allow qualified students to access the ESA program in this time of crisis. Doing so would empower their parents to find and pay for services to continue their educational progress.
For families fortunate enough to have access, ESAs have been a stabilizing buoy during these tumultuous times. The ESA program has allowed these families to continue meeting their children’s unique needs, often with little interruption. Countless other families need access to this buoy right now.
Time is of the essence. The Arizona Department of Education has the authority to allow families to access this valuable resource so their children can continue to receive an education and educational therapies that meet their needs. The only question is whether they have the will.
Kayla Svedin is an ESA mom and founder of the new nonprofit organization Empowered Arizona Families.