After COVID, disabled high school seniors deserve a 13th year

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Distance learning has been a disaster for teachers, parents and students alike. Over time, some of the impacts are recoverable. It won’t be easy, but there is a path forward. 

But one group does not have time: this year’s high school seniors with disabilities. Come May 2021, many will be out of time to make up the lost year and will leave the 12th grade without a high school diploma and learned employment skills. 

There is no makeup year unless we create one. Without a change in the rules, this is a pass-fail exam, with an unnecessary bias toward failing. 

It doesn’t have to be this way; education agencies could offer a voluntary 13th year for this year’s and next year’s senior class.  

For many high school seniors with disabilities, the lack of in-school instruction has been challenging not only in terms of a diploma, but also by the loss of senior-year, school-to-work transition services. School-to-work transition services for students with disabilities is a relatively new, but highly successful, strategy for improving the outcomes for students. Transition services are exactly that: a way to provide students with a disability an effective transition to employment in their senior year.  

For some, this may entail half-a-day in the classroom and half-a-day in supervised employment. It is quite impactful and the epidemic should not be allowed to deny that transition to this year’s seniors. These critical transition services allow graduating students to enter the workforce or post-secondary school better prepared to succeed in employment training programs, in jobs and in college. Without them, students will have no senior year, no transition, no employment. It’s a sudden stop. 

Recent discussions on opening schools during this pandemic have focused on vaccinating teachers and school personnel, on the negative effects a lack of social interaction has on young students, or on the economic impact of parents staying home to help with online learning and childcare. These are indeed important issues. But the sudden stop of large numbers of high school seniors with disabilities exiting school without a diploma or employment skills, through no fault of their own, will be cataclysmic.  

In California, according to our estimates, there are roughly 487,000 seniors in high school and approximately 52,000 are students with disabilities. Without that optional 13th year, many of these students will face a double whammy: no diploma and no transition to college or employment. And without them, their lives will be difficult at best. 

Numerous studies have demonstrated graduates of college will earn far more than college students who dropped out. By far, those earning the least are students without a high school diploma. A lack of a high school diploma is the negative ‘gift’ that keeps on hurting.  

We need to give our kids a fighting chance. Education is a civil right, one fairly well established in the Constitution of several states. As such, legislators have a moral imperative and possibly the legal authority to offer a 13th year to students who would most benefit from it. 

We call on governors, state superintendents and local school boards to address this post-COVID crisis by granting a waiver for an additional year of instruction and/or transition services for high school seniors with disabilities so that they can earn their high school degree and acquire the necessary skills for lifetime employment. While participating in this 13th-year initiative should be voluntary, we ask that school districts actively encourage these students to take this next year to earn both their high school diploma and to learn critical employment skills.  

Students with disabilities have spent a lifetime dealing with their own set of unique, extraordinary and often unfair challenges and will continue to do so. A global pandemic is yet another hurdle for them to overcome. 

Governmental institutions need to step forward and buffer that impact. Give students with disabilities their 13th school year. They not only deserve it: their future depends on it.  

Jaime H. Pacheco-Orozco  serves as the assistant executive director of the City of Los Angeles, Department on Disability. Hon. Steve Bartlett was the lead co-author of the American with Disabilities Act and other key legislation when he served in Congress. He serves as chair of RespectAbility, a nonprofit disability organization with a team in Los Angeles

Tags #covid19 Disability Disability in the United States Education Education in the United States Remote learning Special education Special education in the United States

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