NYC: How to Advocate For Your Child with an IEP During COVID SY 20–21

Jenn Choi
12 min readDec 1, 2020


Photo courtesy: Micaela Walker

By Amber Decker, Rachel Ford, and Jenn Choi of Special Support Services

The closing of NYC school buildings in the Spring of 2020 was devastating to families of students with IEPs. So many students received no live instruction and missed much-needed services. Sadly, in the Fall of 2020, despite the offer of partial in-person schooling and improved remote instruction, parents of students with IEPs continue to suffer. The countless cries from parents in the community were being largely ignored, thus our group (SSS), decided to act by creating a survey to assess how special education services weren’t being provided in this city.

To be sure, much of the problems stemmed from the staffing shortage caused by the city’s reopening plan. In addition, the lack of improvement to remote instruction can not be ignored. SSS advocates who are also parents of students with disabilities in NYC public schools mobilized parents to respond to and share the surveys across the city. Over 1,100 parents answered the survey. As a result, we’ve published a 26-page analysis detailing how students with disabilities were not receiving appropriate services as mandated by their IEP. The report also found multiple problems that impeded the appropriate delivery of special education services such as:

  • very small self-contained classes restricted from 5-day in-person instruction despite having staff and space
  • very little access to paraprofessionals
  • no special education teachers available to many students with ICT
  • related services scheduled during live remote instruction
  • too much self-directed work assigned with no opportunity for help
  • class sizes over contractual limits

The report concluded with 12 bold recommendations to the New York City Department of Education along with state agencies asking them to terminate poor practices that are ruining our children’s ability to learn. The report recommendations also asked for systems to be put in place to help families seek compensatory or makeup services.


First, get a printout of your child’s IEP and schedule and have it next to you while you are reading this.

  1. Set up a simple list like the chart below. It doesn’t have to be fancy but take a minute to write down what’s wrong. If you are not sure about the solutions, leave it blank for now.
  2. First the easy stuff. If you are not receiving related services or SETSS, list the details (how many times a week, since when have you missed, and how many have you missed.)

The Hard Part- Reframing- Bringing it Back to the IEP

Because there is a staffing shortage and remote instruction is so poorly provided, your child is suffering but we must be careful in how we frame our complaints. Why?

  • The city is currently permitting the loss of a teacher for Blended Remote ICT.
  • The city has also given very little guidance for how 1:1 paraprofessionals can assist students.
  • The city has not improved remote special education delivery and has allowed teacher caseloads to double making any help during asynchronous times almost impossible.
  • Very small cohorts of students in the self-contained class are actually taking turns to attend school when it appears the cohorts might be combined so students can attend 5 days a week. There is no guidance from the DOE to make this a priority within a community school.

Now, consider each of these problems like LEGO blocks and just add the ones you need in your complaint letter. (P.S. Don’t call, write a letter, sign it too)

Problem: Not Enough Time with Para

Reframe: My child’s IEP states she has a 1:1 paraprofessional. She is often prompted by the para during class to pay attention. She then works with the para to review the lesson. She also executes many of my child’s Management Needs as outlined in her IEP but it is currently not taking place now. We need this to continue for remote instruction but it’s not and therefore she is not participating appropriately in the curriculum.

Problem: Little Live Instruction and/or Not Enough Small Group Instruction

Reframe: My child’s IEP states X times (periods) of ICT (or Special Class- look at your IEP) which she needs because she requires small group instruction, 1:1 instruction at times, checking for understanding, having tasks broken down, and encouragement while she does her work. She does not receive enough of this during most if not all of her special education service periods. She is falling behind and frustrated and therefore she is not participating appropriately in the curriculum.

Problem: Too Much Live Instruction, Brain is Fried

Reframe: My child’s IEP states X times/periods of ICT (or Special Class) however, the current delivery of all of her services is always synchronous without breaks that are long enough for her. Therefore her education is not accessible to her due to her disability. I have asked for accommodations but have not received anything that makes a difference and therefore she is not participating appropriately in the curriculum.

Problem: There Are Too Many Kids in My Child’s Class

Many parents don’t know but classes with ICT are not allowed to grow larger even during COVID. Special Class sizes aren’t supposed to grow either.
Reframe: There are X number of students in my Fully Remote/Blended Remote (pick one) class. I understand that this is above the permitted number of students. This abnormality appears to be the reason her special education services are not being properly delivered and my child is not making meaningful progress now. My child requires small group instruction, 1:1 instruction at times, checking for understanding, having tasks broken down, and encouragement while she does her work. She does not receive enough of this during most if not all of her special education service periods. She is falling behind and frustrated and therefore she is not participating appropriately in the curriculum. (Notice we are not telling them to reduce class size, we are only documenting the class size which is against the rules, AND saying she’s not making progress). Basically, don’t get into an argument about the class size. Get into an argument about how her special ed services are not being delivered properly.

If your school doesn’t make one for your child, make one anyway and have your teacher fill in blanks and confirm its accuracy. Your schedule should show the related services and which periods are live (synchronous) photo: Jenn Choi

Problem: There are Office Hours but He Won’t Go

Reframe: My child’s IEP states X times/periods of ICT (or Special Class). The X periods that he is currently receiving instruction from the teacher is not enough. It appears that part of his special education services can be delivered during Office Hours however, it has been communicated as “optional.” Traits of my child’s disability include delayed skills in organization, verbalizing his problems, self-motivation, and goal-directed persistence. This means that he is unable to access his instruction due to his disability. Unless he has regularly scheduled support to be provided to him is not communicated as “optional” but rather as “mandatory,” he will continue to be unable to participate appropriately in the curriculum. (Lastly, many of us will say that a child won’t go but this is actually incorrect, what we want to say is that due to his disability, he can’t go unless he is required. This is more accurate. )

Problem: The In-Person Cohorts are So Small, Can He Attend 5 Days a Week Full Time?

Reframe: Special Education service delivery of the X periods (ICT/Special Class) during my child’s Blended Remote days have been inaccessible as my child’s disability creates delays in his ability to attend and participate and make meaningful progress without the support of teachers consistently engaging him, checking for understanding, breaking down tasks, and providing small group and/or individual instruction. It simply has been impossible for my child with a two-dimensional interface. However, if he were to be allowed to attend in-person schooling five days a week, access to the curriculum would be greatly improved. The guidance of the New York State Department of Education states, “School districts must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s individualized education program (IEP).” My child’s cohort has only two children, the other children in his cohort contain just two children. I believe combining the two cohorts is possible as they are small. Can you please make these changes so that my child can make meaningful progress and not suffer regression as this is the direction he’s headed right now? (Note, you may have to go above your school team for this one but get a ‘’NO” first, in writing. See below about WHO to complain to)

Problem: Live Instruction and Related Services Overlap

Reframe: My child’s IEP states X times/periods of ICT (or Special Class) as well as X times/periods of (Speech/OT/Counseling/SETSS). My child’s Speech services are scheduled while she is supposed to be in (Math/Social Studies/Science/ELA). The objective of related/SETSS services is to improve my child’s ability to achieve her educational goals however, removing her from limited live class time is causing barriers and therefore she is not participating appropriately in the curriculum.

Problem: Missed or Still Missing SETSS, Related Services

No need to Reframe here: My child’s IEP states X periods of SETSS (ELA/Math)however due to staffing, my child has missed ___ periods and is still continuing to miss them. The objective of SETSS services is to improve my child’s ability to achieve her educational goals and improve participation in the curriculum and because she’s missing services, she can not participate appropriately in the curriculum to make meaningful progress. Please issue a P4/RSA for missed services and well as a P4/RSA to obtain services for the rest of the school year. (P4 is the voucher for SETSS; RSA is the voucher for Related Service)

You have probably complained multiple times to your principal but if their hands are tied, there is no use anymore. If you suspect they said something incorrect, write that down but more importantly, write a letter to the

  1. New York City Department of Education
    Special Education Office
    52 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007
  2. Sign it, turn it into a PDF, copy-paste the contents of the letter into the email, and attach the PDF to the email.
  3. You can also follow these instructions too which include a phone call to P311. We recommend Elizabeth Kirk’s 6-step sequence for how to contact P311 and the Special Education Office.
  4. You should be contacted by someone in their office or a Special Education Community Coordinator from your borough. Take notes of your conversation and action steps, expected dates of when action will be completed, get their email, send them a summary of your conversation, and ask for a confirmation that they received the email.
  5. Don’t stop at the DOE if your situation is really bad. Write to your elected officials, write to the education chairs of legislative bodies such as the NY City Council, state senate and state assembly, the media, gather fellow parents from your class, school, or district and write a joint request for more appropriate service delivery. You don’t need to ask only parents of children with IEPs, if your child falls behind, more resources will go to them eventually, and thus everyone benefits if they receive help now.
  6. Join others to help fight for Students with Disabilities. Even the NYC DOE guidance makes it difficult to do the right thing for our kids. Collective public action is necessary. Most people are not going to file an impartial hearing. Action groups are here: Email Group Listserv or the Facebook Group
Every parent should have a blank calendar at their fingertips. Just jot down things such as: Couldn’t attend class, Couldn’t do his work; Needed constant redirection, Meltdown, etc. Create data as much as possible as it may help you when seeking compensatory services in the future. photo: Jenn Choi

What Should You Ask For?

We suggest you refrain from asking for things that appear to be outside of your school’s control, such as hiring more teachers and having fewer kids in the class. You need to ask for the kind of instruction that your child needs for every period of special education (ICT or SETSS or Special Class). That includes small group and 1:1 instruction and most of the other wonderful things that special ed teachers do. That’s what you ask for and work with them to explicitly delineate how that will be done. You should have concrete suggestions too such as :

  • have paraprofessional spend at least 30 minutes with my child to review each lesson from every teacher
  • my child needs a 30 minute regularly scheduled mandated office hour to receive small group or individual instruction
  • for two periods a day, please give my child the work via email instead of requiring live attendance; he also needs instruction if it is not included in the work, please give specific deadlines and instructions how to submit the work.
  • For each lesson provided during the period, my child needs at least 15 minutes of small group or individualized instruction to check for understanding and help him get started.

A good place to have this discussion is at your Programs Adaptations Document meeting (scroll down). You can ask for one at any time even if you made one last month. Write all your concerns and requests in a Word Doc and as a signed PDF and ask them to put the PDF into SESIS and use the Word Doc to copy-paste your concerns into the PAD.

How to PRODUCTIVELY PAUSE Your Complaint if It’s Going Nowhere

First the easy tip: If you hire a tutor to make remote learning work, make sure you write a 10-day notice to alert them that you are hiring someone because your child is not making appropriate progress. Sometimes this can be helpful.

This part is tougher: Understand that because NYC’s School Reopening has been so catastrophic, no matter how hard you advocate, you may not receive what your child needs. Still, don’t give up easily. We want you to leave a real impression on them so that they truly understand just how much your child is falling behind and that you are not giving up.

That said, at some point, to reduce trauma to you, consider trying for a Productive Pause. This isn’t because you are not good enough. There is a current teacher shortage and because of the way it’s set up, our kids are bound to receive substandard instruction. Few people know but teachers caseloads are allowed to be doubled which means that access to teachers during asynchronous periods is likely impossible. When you sense there is no way to move forward, talk to your school team, provide them with all your concerns in a Word Doc and as a signed PDF for a Program Adaptations Document (PAD) Meeting. Make sure you bring a friend, someone who is really good at taking notes.

Discuss your child’s needs in the meeting and let everyone acknowledge that he needs what you are proposing. Allow people to be comfortable saying that the school doesn’t have the resources right now. Request that your concerns be copy-pasted into the PAD as there are sections that should document your concerns. If you meet resistance, show them the DOE guidance to school staff on how a PAD should be written. Then say something like this:

Thank you all for seeing my child’s struggles. Thank you for agreeing with me that he is not making appropriate progress and that he needs more than what the school can provide right now. I would like you to document that on his IEP so that when possible, he can have services to help him make appropriate progress.

With any luck, they will do this for you. They are busy, they can’t keep trying to make something look like something else, you can direct your attention into other ways of helping them if they would do the right thing and document that he is not making appropriate progress. If they document it for you, just write a summary of the PAD meeting and ask them to submit it to SESIS. Put that there in case it’s handy later. Also, give them a copy of this report too.

Parents should confidently assert to anyone that children with disabilities have a right to a barrier-free education and that right is still protected by law, even during the pandemic. However, we are witnessing how legally mandated services are not being provided appropriately. It appears rather out in the open when special ed services such as ICT are watered down and renamed with misleading terms such as “third teacher.” All parents, whether their child has a disability or not, should question how citizens can trust a school district that is not following educational laws. #NYCSpEdShortage is #EveryonesProblem.

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Jenn Choi

Special Education Advocate at @go3snyc supporting families navigate the special education process, AT coach,