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Pandemic led to drop in special education services for young kids in Missouri and nationwide

Students jackets and backpacks hang up in kindergarten teacher Erika Johnson’s classroom on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at the Stix Early Childhood Center in Forest Park Southeast.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Students jackets and backpacks hang up in kindergarten teacher Erika Johnson’s classroom on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, at the Stix Early Childhood Center in Forest Park Southeast.

The pandemic led to a drop in the number of young children who were receiving special education services, both in Missouri and across the country.

A new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research examined equity in early intervention and early childhood special education. Researchers found a nationwide drop in those services between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. That was also true in Missouri.

The researchers also found racial disparities in who was most affected — the drop in early intervention was largest for Asian children, and the drop in early childhood special education was largest for Black students nationally, although in Missouri it was largest for white students.

“The disparities that are documented in this equity audit are not just unfair, they're harmful,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of NIEER and a researcher for the report.

Experts say it’s important to identify and serve kids with disabilities as soon as possible. These recorded drops in early intervention and early childhood special education likely meant kids had a harder time transitioning to later grades, which then put an even heavier burden on classrooms as they worked to return to normal after the pandemic.

That’s an effect Dana Walker has observed in her work in St. Louis. Walker is the director of children’s services for St. Louis Arc, which advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We've definitely seen the effect of COVID on early education, and those kids missing those early childhood experiences of being able to be with their peers, being able to learn through play and interacting with an adult other than their primary caregiver,” Walker said. “When they are going into the early education setting, the elementary setting, they're not prepared.”

The new report’s researchers also found differences between states in the percentage of students being served. Missouri is below the national average in the percentage of students who receive both early intervention and early childhood special education services.

The researchers said this disparity in access across states is tied to income.

“Young children with disabilities are less likely to receive the services they need in states with lower incomes, despite the fact that access to these services is a right for young children,” Barnett added.

The report’s authors said there are ways to fix the problem. They are calling for increased federal funding for these programs, more data collection, equity audits in individual states and more collaboration between states to share best practices nationally.

“One of the other real challenges we have is that our society and our systems have low expectations for low-income families and families who live in rural and remote areas,” said Katherine Neas, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

There are also workforce issues that affect access to early childhood services. One is a lack of diversity among educators, said Valora Washington, CEO and founder of the Cayl Institute.

“We really need to pay attention to making sure that there is representative leadership among teachers and allied professionals in special education,” Washington said.

Neas also said there is a nationwide shortage in special education teachers. That’s true in Missouri, where annual staffing reports show the position is one of the most difficult to fill by multiple measures.

“We are doing everything we can to train more people,” Neas said. “But we also know that we can't train enough people to fill the need, we have to retain people.”

Walker said there are also inequities in the types of services offered in different parts of the St. Louis region.

“One school in the county might have special education services on site, there might be something drastically different in another region or even in the city,” Walker said. “There's not an equal playing field for special education amongst the schools regardless of what region you're in.”

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Kate Grumke