State finds Denver at fault in case of 7-year-old and online school

A little girl with Down syndrome smiles while looking at a computer screen. She has red hair and is wearing a pink polka-dotted shirt.
Pearl does a virtual session with her speech therapist last spring, when she was attending kindergarten virtually. (Courtesy of Heidi Bricker)
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Seven-year-old Pearl spent the first four months of this school year at home without any instruction. 

Pearl has Down syndrome, as well as asthma and other conditions that affect her respiratory system. Her parents didn’t want to send her into a classroom until she could be vaccinated for COVID-19. But Denver Public Schools denied her entry into its online school on the basis that she wouldn’t be able to attend remote classes independently, leaving Pearl in educational limbo.

This month, the Colorado Department of Education found Denver Public Schools at fault in Pearl’s case. In response to a complaint filed by Pearl’s family, a state complaints officer found the school district failed to offer Pearl a “free appropriate public education,” as required by federal disability law. What’s more, the officer found that the violations extend to other children.

“This investigation demonstrates violations that are systemic and will likely impact the future provision of services for all children with disabilities in [the] district if not corrected,” the state complaint decision in Pearl’s case says.

In a statement, Denver Public Schools said it disagreed but would not challenge the findings. 

“The district has certainly had challenges and shortcomings during the pandemic, but respectfully disagrees with the statements about systemic issues,” the district said. 

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of immense stress and concern for DPS families, including the families of students with disabilities,” it added. “Throughout this challenging time, the district has consistently sought to provide flexible options for families and involve families proactively in decision making about their child’s educational services.”

Denver Public Schools said it will not challenge the state’s decision even though it has concerns with the investigation process and analysis. State decisions cannot be appealed, but the district could file a type of lawsuit known as a due process complaint against Pearl’s family — “an option the district ethically opposes in this case,” its statement said.

Pearl’s family declined to comment about the decision.

Pearl should be in first grade this year. Last year and the year before, she attended her elementary school virtually. In an interview in September, her mother explained that during remote instruction, she’d sit beside Pearl, doing her best to modify the teacher’s lessons to make them accessible to Pearl.

But like many districts in Colorado, Denver Public Schools centralized its online instruction this year. The only option for students who wanted to remain remote was to apply to the district’s new online elementary school. The district’s deadline was June 4.

Pearl’s parents didn’t realize the new online school was the only remote option, the complaint decision says. It wasn’t until early August, when they were told Pearl’s elementary school would not be allowed to offer virtual instruction this year, that they applied to the online school.

Because Pearl’s family missed the deadline, the district considered their request an administrative transfer from Pearl’s elementary school to the new online school. And because Pearl has an individualized education program, or IEP — which details her goals for the year and the services she will receive because of her disability — the district said it first needed to evaluate whether the online school could meet her needs.

That was despite the fact that Pearl had what the district called a “virtual IEP” from the previous school year that described how her services would be offered and her goals met online.

The district told Pearl’s parents the new evaluation would take four to six weeks but that Pearl could attend school in person until then, according to the complaint decision. Her parents “were never provided with student-specific information explaining why [the] district deemed it appropriate for [her] to return in person despite her health conditions,” it says.

School started Aug. 23. Concerned about Pearl’s health, her parents kept her home. 

In mid-October, her parents had a meeting with Pearl’s special education team to discuss her enrollment in the online school. “Her enrollment was rejected because [the] district determined she could not attend remote instruction independently on a full-time basis,” according to the complaint decision. Once again, Pearl’s parents were told she could come to school in person. Still worried about her health, they continue to keep her home.

“She has been isolated at home and has not received any special education services during the 2021-2022 academic year,” the complaint decision says.

The state concluded the district committed several violations, including that it didn’t include Pearl’s parents in decisions about her schooling or properly notify them of those decisions. Because Pearl hasn’t received any services this year, the complaint officer also concluded the district must make up by August more than 70 hours of specialized instruction and therapies that Pearl missed.

The decision also extends to other students in Pearl’s position. By March 1, the district has to submit a list of all other students with IEPs who are on the online school waitlist and have missed more than 10 days of school this year. By May 2, the district has to show that it has resolved any issues involving those students and has determined whether they also qualify for makeup special education services.

The state also ordered certain special education staff members to undergo training by April.

Asked how many other students are in Pearl’s position, Denver Public Schools did not provide any data. Instead, a district statement said that “for families that applied by the June 4 deadline, there are no students that remain on the waitlist because the district built the online schools at a size to accommodate those requests.” (There is also an online middle and high school). The statement does not address students who requested administrative transfers, as Pearl did.

“Notably, [the Colorado Department of Education] did not find that this student or any other student must be educated in an online setting to receive an appropriate education,” a district statement said. “The district will continue to make student-centered decisions, involving each student’s family, when considering that question for students with disabilities.”

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