The Special Education Process in Illinois: Moving Forward After the Pandemic
By Elaine Rau, Ethics Education Committee Member
Published October 2023 in the ISHA Voice
In May 2023, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 pandemic that started in March 2020 was no longer a global medical emergency (UN News, 2023). The devastating effects of the pandemic resulted in over 1.1 million deaths in the U.S. alone and brought disruptions in almost every area of life including education.
This article attempts to describe some of the pandemic-related challenges to the special education process in Illinois schools from the point of view of school speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and discusses recommendations found in the literature and online sources for moving forward in the post-pandemic era.
The multidisciplinary team in the public schools, also called the special education team, consists of a general education teacher, school psychologist, speech-language pathologist (SLP), a representative of the school district, parents/guardians of the student, and any other relevant individuals (IRIS Center, n.d.). The team considers referrals for special education evaluations and re-evaluations, conducts assessments, and determines if an educational disability is present. If the team decides there is a need for special services, an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is developed. The IEP contains the goals and services for the student. If the SLP conducts an assessment and finds that a student has a speech-language or swallowing disorder, the SLP provides the related IEP goals and recommended service minutes.
Challenges to the Special Education Process During the Pandemic
During the pandemic, multidisciplinary teams in Illinois experienced numerous difficulties in implementing the special education process, which included the following:
- Difficulties providing remote assessment services during the school shutdown in the spring of 2020 and the gradual re-opening of the schools in 2020-21. Gov. Pritzker shut down all Illinois schools from March 2020 to the end of the school year (Ballotpedia, n.d.). At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, most Illinois schools were providing remote or hybrid learning, however by the end of the school year most Illinois schools had shifted back to in-person instruction (Ballotpedia, n.d.).
- Problems delivering pre-referral intervention services through Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) for students having difficulty in a range of areas including speech-language. These challenges occurred from March through May of 2020 during the school shutdown and in 2020-21 when schools were shifting back to in-person learning (Wright, 2021). On the national level, Wright found that when instruction was primarily virtual, RtI/MTSS interventions were greatly reduced or suspended.
- Staffing shortages: A survey in January 2023 by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents found that school districts across Illinois were having difficulty filling openings for special education, bilingual education, STEM classes, and professional support personnel (Blad, 2022). Most school SLP positions are classified as school support personnel. Bruno (2023) found that although overall staffing shortages in Illinois public schools were low in the fall of 2022, they had increased for non-teaching/non-administrative staff positions. Data collected by the Illinois Board of Education in the fall of 2022 indicated that out of 5,648 positions for SLPs as school support personnel, 240 remained unfilled (Bruno, personal correspondence, Aug. 17, 2023).
- Chronic absenteeism: defined as a student missing 10% or more of their instruction. An increase in chronic absenteeism made it more difficult to implement interventions and conduct evaluations. Illinois schools were open for in-person learning by the fall of 2021. For the 2021-22 school year, the rate of chronic absenteeism for the state was 30%. By comparison, the chronic absenteeism rate for 2018-19, the last full year before the pandemic, was 17.5%. (Schmid, 2023).
- Learning loss related to the pandemic. Kane and Reardon (2023) examined math and reading levels for Illinois students from 2019 to 2022. They found that Illinois students averaged a loss of nearly 3 months (-.31 grade equivalents) in math and about one month (-.13 grade equivalents) in reading. However, the data for Illinois districts varied widely with many districts showing losses of almost one year in reading. Wright (2021) observed that the lack of RtI/MTSS services when learning was virtual resulted in learning loss that disproportionately affected students who were already behind academically.
- Over-reliance on standardized tests during the spring of 2020 and in the 2020-21 school year (Sims et al., 2023). The authors raised concerns that due to the difficulties in providing in-person testing, some teams used assessment procedures that deviated significantly from standardized testing protocols (Sims et al., 2023).
Due to the pandemic-related challenges listed above, Sims et al. reported that during the pandemic, multidisciplinary teams sometimes made referral and eligibility decisions that did not follow best practice and were not legally defensible (Sims et al., 2023).
Current Concerns and Moving Forward
While Illinois schools were generally functioning as usual for the 2022-23 school year, some of these concerns, such as staffing shortages, learning loss, and the increased level of chronic student absenteeism continued to affect the special education process in some districts. At least one of these concerns, staffing shortages, appears to be affecting the 2023-24 school year. The Daily Herald for Aug. 27, 2023, reported that staffing shortages continue to be present in the suburbs of Chicago and across the state (Fabbre, 2023).
A number of recommendations have been developed to help special education teams in post-pandemic times provide a special education process that follows all best practice guidelines. These suggestions are listed below:
- The National Association of School Psychologists recommended that in the recovery period, schools should place a strong emphasis on core instruction and supplemental interventions, so students who have pandemic-related learning loss will not be over or under-identified as having a Specific Learning Disability (NASP, 2021).
- Jim Wright, an educator and trainer for RtI and MTSS, recommended that following the pandemic, schools need to provide RtI/MTSS services that are "up to full strength for all three tiers of instruction to overcome the learning loss related to the pandemic" (Wright, 2021). This would also provide valuable student data to special education teams when considering referrals for evaluation (Sims et al., 2023).
- Six recommendations were developed to assist teams in strengthening policies and procedures for the special education process both in typical times and in times when schools might experience disruptions that limit in-person learning:
- “Account for and prioritize the physical safety of all involved individuals.
- Strengthen and utilize formal prevention and early intervention systems.
- Ensure that policies and procedures adhere to federal and state, ethical, and best practice guidelines.
- Utilize defensible assessment, testing, and evaluation practices.
- Ensure practices are socially just and promote equity.
- Offer transparent, consistent policy statements" (Sims et al., 2023, p. 5).
By following these recommendations and sharing them with our special education teams, SLPs can contribute to the goal of all teams having policies and procedures that follow best practice and provide eligibility decisions and services that are legally defensible and produce the best possible outcomes for our students.
Ballotpedia (n.d.). School responses in Illinois to the corona virus (COVID-19). https://ballotpedia.org/School_responses_in_Illinois_to_the_coronavirus_(COVID-19)_pandemic
Blad, E. (Oct. 2022). Special education during the pandemic, in charts. Education Week.
Bruno, P. (July 2, 2023). Pandemic-Era School Staff Shortages: Evidence from Unfilled Position Data in Illinois. SSRN. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4306263
Fabbre, A. (2023, Aug. 7). "We are hiring in every department": School staffing shortages continue across suburbs and state. Daily Herald. https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20230826/we-are-hiring-in-every-department-school-staffing-shortages-continue-across-suburbs-and-state
IRIS Center (n.d.). The Multidisciplinary Team. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/asd1/cresource/q2/p04/
Kane, T., & Reardon, S., (2023). Illinois included in total of 40 states that have comparable view of district level learning loss. Education Recovery Scorecard. https://educationrecoveryscorecard.org/2023/05/11/illinois-included-in-total-of-40-states-that-have-comparable-view-of-district-level-learningloss/#:~:text=Statewide%2C%20Illinois%20lost%20nearly%20three,year%20in%20losses%20in%20reading
National Association of School Psychologists. (n.d.). The pandemic’s impact on special education evaluations and SLD identification [handout]. https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/covid-19-resource-center/return-to-school/the-pandemics-impact-on-special-education-evaluations-and-sld-identification
Schmid, H. (June 2023). Illinois high school students struggle, yet graduation rate hits 10-year high. Illinois Policy Institute.
Sims, W., Yu, R., & Zahn, D. (2023). Special Education Evaluation Considerations in a Post-pandemic Era. Contemporary School Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40688-023-00468-2
UN News. (2023, May 5). WHO chief declares end to COVID-19 as a global health emergency. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/05/1136367
Wright, J. (2021). Recommitting to RTI/MTSS After COVID-19 School Closures. Frontline education. https://www.frontlineeducation.com/blog/rti-mtss-programs-after-covid-school-closures/
Elaine M. Rau is an independent contractor speech-language pathologist who provides speech therapy via telepractice to students in Illinois public schools.