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Advocates say that coming back from the pandemic, the need is greater than ever for instructional supports.

Students with disabilities in Oregon are embroiled in a class-action lawsuit against the state.

The plaintiffs in the case allege a systemic shortening of school days for students with special needs, in violation of federal law.PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Lord High School special education teacher Chris Hatch addresses the crowd as teachers rally in Woodburn on the issue of COVID-19 safety during the pandemic. Advocates and state officials say a shortage of qualified special ed staff in schools is contributing to lost instructional time for some students with disabilities.

In the lawsuit filed in January 2019, four students with disabilities -- along with coalition of public-interest law firms and pro-bono attorneys. including Disability Rights Oregon -- name Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Education and its director, Colt Gill, as defendants.

The complaint outlines how schools repeatedly remove students from classrooms and either separate them or call their parents to pick them up, creating a cycle of isolation that slows academic growth and eliminates social interactions.

The lawsuit alleges that students with developmental and sensory disabilities saw their instructional time cut, in some cases in violation of their individual education plan — a written agreement between a school district and family over the services to be provided to a student with disabilities.

In one case detailed in the complaint, a school district provided a teenager with epilepsy at-home tutoring sessions, but when the aide hired to provide that home instruction left for another job, the district asked the teen's parents not to bring him to school until a replacement could be found.

Last year federal judge Ann Aiken certified the case as a class-action suit on behalf of all students with disabilities age 3 to 21 in Oregon who are eligible for special education and related services and are facing shortened school days due to their conditions.

About 1,000 of the approximately 80,000 Oregon children who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) qualify. In those cases, school district officials have determined that they need behavioral services and supports to learn and progress socially through a full school day. In some cases, those services and supports aren't available, and so their districts have cut the hours in which they can attend school.

The lawsuit accuses the state of not tracking data related to shortened school days.

FACT Oregon is a nonprofit advocacy group by and for families of individuals with disabilities. Christy Reese, its executive director, said FACT received a "record-breaking" number of calls this past school year from families who were looking for support for their children with disabilities as they returned to the classroom.

"This last year, as more kids returned in person, there weren't great re-entry plans for all students," she said. "When you have students who experience disabilities, who have support needs, there really weren't great plans to reintegrate a lot of those kids. Districts didn't have enough qualified people who could support all kids through that. Families are having difficulty accessing recovery services."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit want Aiken to order Oregon to provide "children whose disabilities lead to challenging classroom behaviors with the services and supports they need to access a full school day."

"We are seeking permanent, systemic change to Oregon's educational system serving all children," Disability Rights Oregon senior staff attorney Joel Greenberg said.

Both Disability Rights Oregon and FACT Oregon pointed to staffing shortages as one barrier to improved education for students with disabilities.

The Oregon Department of Education said it does not track any data regarding teacher vacancies at a statewide level.

"ODE cannot speak to district-level vacancies, as hiring is a school district responsibility subject to local policies and collective bargaining agreements," department spokesperson Peter Rudy said. "Even in the absence of specific statewide data, we are hearing that there is significant need for additional special education teachers, related services providers and support staff in Oregon. Special education teachers are critical elements in student success, so Oregon is committed to finding solutions that can address vacancies.

"However, this concern is not one ODE can address in isolation. It will require the coordinated effort of multiple state agencies."

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