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Special-Ed Teachers Reach Students During Crisis, But Concerns Persist

State education officials say the number of special education students in Minnesota gradually has increased over the years. The number now stands at roughly 150,000. (Adobe Stock)
State education officials say the number of special education students in Minnesota gradually has increased over the years. The number now stands at roughly 150,000. (Adobe Stock)
April 20, 2020

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. -- Teachers across Minnesota, including special education teachers, are overcoming obstacles to carry out distance learning during the global health crisis.

But longstanding federal funding shortages present challenges for the current situation, as well as the future, educators say.

Education leaders stress many teachers are stepping up to meet the needs of students after the coronavirus pandemic threw distance learning into their laps. But special education teachers face unique circumstances.

Amber Serfling, a special education teacher near Grand Rapids, says these services often are individualized, requiring face-to-face work.

"I work mainly with students who qualify under the category of emotional behavior disabilities," she relates. "Most of those goals are around social interaction, self-management social skills. So navigating a way to meet those kinds of unique goals distantly has been a challenge."

Serfling says some of her students aren't able to thrive and complete assignments. So she's coming up with special learning tools and delivering them individually to their homes.

Serfling and her colleagues say they're fulfilling their mission, but downward trends in federal funding exacerbate the challenges during the crisis.

And advocates were hoping for $75 billion in the CARES Act to boost schools, but only $30 billion was allocated.

In Minnesota, the federal government accounts for a small portion of special education funding, despite the initial promise of 40% under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Daron Korte, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education, says that has left the state to fill much of the gap.

"At some point, there needs to be some balance," he states. "The state is picking up 60% to 70% of the costs, the federal government is picking up around 7% of costs and the locals are asked to pick up the rest."

Serfling says prior to the pandemic, the level of support she was getting didn't match her caseload. She worries what things might look like when schools start to open up again.

"My concern is that as we re-enter schools, these kids are going to be farther behind and take more time to catch up than their peers," she states.

And she says there will be more glaring needs for supplemental services to help these students get back on track.

Disclosure: American Federation of Teachers contributes to our fund for reporting on Education, Health Issues, Livable Wages/Working Families, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN