Young children with disabilities and developmental delays experienced unique hardships during the pandemic, including a significant decline in access to early childhood special education services (ECSE). In the first three months of the pandemic, 40% of parents of children who receive ECSE reported that their children were not receiving any services. Longstanding barriers to services existed before the pandemic, and the research is clear on how important it is to identify the needs of children and to intervene as early as possible. Without proper supports and services during this critical time period, there is a risk of lifelong impacts on children’s development and their school readiness.
States have received historic, short-term investments in early care and education programs and are deciding how to best use the funds. The American Rescue Plan Act provides states with $200 million in preschool grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B – Section 619. States and school districts can also use the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support IDEA programs. These critical funds provide state leaders with a unique opportunity to address systemic inequities for young children with disabilities and developmental delays.
There are several opportunities to ensure ARPA funds are used at the state and local level to maximize impact for children with delays and disabilities and their families. Start Early has released guidance for stakeholders on how to use IDEA ARPA funds in ways that will lay the groundwork for long-term transformation of the system. Below are some considerations for state leaders.
Family Engagement and Enrollment Strategies
The pandemic made identifying children and delivering services especially challenging and has contributed to a dramatic drop in developmental screenings and a decline in enrollment of children and families in services. Fewer children were able to enroll in early childhood programs or visit health providers, resulting in fewer referrals. Early childhood providers and school districts pivoted to virtual screenings, evaluations and service delivery, yet many families and children still experienced gaps in services, particularly families of color.
State leaders can consider outreach and enrollment strategies that are responsive to the individual needs of families and the impact of trauma that the pandemic may have had on them. Policymakers and school districts may also want to consider using the infusion of funding to invest in increasing the number of professionals — prioritizing those who reflect the demographics of the community in which they work — who can conduct developmental screenings and evaluations, provide ECSE services, and support children to transition from Early Intervention to preschool and then kindergarten. This additional capacity is critical as school districts respond to the anticipated increase in referrals and address the backlogs in evaluations that resulted from the pandemic.
There are new opportunities for states to leverage federal funding to build creative models that would increase opportunities for inclusion of preschool age children with delays and disabilities. Although the research is clear on the benefits of inclusion for all children in early childhood settings, one out of four preschool age children are served in self-contained classrooms and less than half receive services in settings with typically developing peers. This challenge is magnified for children attending community-based programs, who tend to be children of color and of lower socioeconomic status.
Both research and federal law support the need to increase opportunities for full inclusion of children ages 3 to 5 and to develop innovative models to ensure that children receive ECSE services in their least restrictive environment across a continuum of settings. This can be explored by piloting demonstration projects that allow states and local leaders to collaborate with community partners to test out and expand options for service delivery that extend beyond their school walls. This might look like partnering with local Head Starts or child care programs to provide special education services in the community-based program the child attends rather than transporting them midday to a school.
By strategically using this federal funding to meet the needs of children and families most impacted, states will work toward building a more equitable, sustainable early care and education system and address disparities in access that worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.