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Feds: Michigan failed students in special education during COVID. What's next?

Mask hangs on chair in empty classroom
A U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigation found the Michigan Department of Education put out incorrect information about make-up services for special education students who fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings could ultimately lead to more student services, but experts say the timeline of a potential resolution is unclear. (Shutterstock) 
  • Federal probe finds Michigan failed to provide COVID-19 make-up services to students in special education programs
  • Experts say the investigation may lead to some students finally getting services they deserved
  • Advocates say the findings are validating but students still face many barriers to getting the special education services they need

Remote learning was difficult for many students in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It was all but impossible for some students like Christopher Hagler, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome who is visually impaired and uses an adaptive device to speak. 

When COVID first hit Michigan in March 2020, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to shut schools to in-person learning, a nurse from the Lansing School District began delivering worksheets to Christopher's home.

But Christopher's disabilities rendered those largely unhelpful. Online learning, too, was a struggle for Christopher, who had been accustomed to specialized school services, including a one-on-one aide.

Child in a wheelchair sits at a desk with assistance
Brian Hagler is the father of Christopher Hagler, a student with disabilities. (Courtesy photo: Brian Hagler)

“Quite frankly, his learning pretty much got set aside during the pandemic,” said his father, Brian Hagler, who tried to juggle overseeing his son's education while working remotely himself. 


"This district didn’t make it a priority, and without the assistance of the district, there was only so much my wife and I could do," Hagler told Bridge Michigan.

Christopher’s dad worked with an advocate to file a federal complaint and reached an agreement with the Lansing school district to provide Christopher with 60 hours of compensatory services, including make-up instruction, speech language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. 

That “made a world of difference" in helping Christopher get back on track after pandemic-era learning losses, his father said. 

But four years after the pandemic began, some parents students who receive special education services are still fighting for the kind of make-up help Christopher received. 

Christopher and his father, Brian, sit with Santa Claus
Brian Hagler tried to help his son, Christopher, with online learning during the pandemic. But virtual learning was tough for his son. (Courtesy photo: Brian Hagler)

The state failed many of them, according to the recently disclosed results of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. 

The probe, which may force schools to provide more make-up learning opportunities, found the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) gave incomplete and misleading information on how students with disabilities could qualify for compensatory services following pandemic school closures. 

Federal civil rights investigators also found the state failed to put a coordinator in place to ensure compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. 

The findings, which MDE has disputed, were first made public last month. 

All told, the state “failed to ensure that Michigan students with disabilities were receiving a free appropriate public education” during the pandemic, Catherine Lhamon, an assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in a May 23 notice.

And after doing so, the state “failed to correctly inform school districts about the extent to which compensatory services — regardless of the term MDE used to describe them — were legally required for students with disabilities,” she wrote.

Those findings are important for Michigan students and their families, said Jacquelyn Kmetz, an associate attorney with the Abdnour Weiker law firm, where she specializes in special education law. 

There were nearly 218,000 Michigan students who received special education services during the 2023-2024 school year. 

The pandemic stopped in-person learning, but the federal government "never stopped the requirements for providing an appropriate public education to students,” Kmetz told Bridge. 

Woman's headshot
Jacquelyn Kmetz, special education lawyer, said the federal investigation could help more students receive help for missed services during the pandemic. (Courtesy photo: Jacquelyn Kmetz)

‘Huge’ for parents

In a June 2020 order, Whitmer had directed the state education department to "make individualized determinations whether and to what extent compensatory services may be needed for students" because of school closures. 

MDE did offer guidance, technical assistance, presentations and other materials. But those communications "failed to correctly inform school districts, families, and other stakeholders" about make-up services that should be made available to students, according to civil rights investigators. 

The federal government is now asking an administrative judge to confirm that MDE violated federal disability law and order corrective actions. 

The notice for a potential hearing warns that the state could potentially lose some federal funding, though Kmetz said that is unlikely. The state education department could also negotiate an agreement with the federal government. 

MDE has disputed the findings and so far declined to settlement offers, according to the notice. The department has until mid-June to respond, either by agreeing to an administrative hearing or waiving it to submit written materials instead. 


MDE declined an interview request from Bridge, citing the “the ongoing legal proceeding.”

In a statement, a spokesperson said the department is “strongly committed to providing equal access to educational opportunities to all students in Michigan – including students with disabilities.”

Marcie Lipsitt, an advocate who filed the federal complaint in March 2021, said she believes MDE has not chosen to settle the issue because it would be “very, very expensive” to the state to provide additional education services.

“I don’t file complaints to be a bad guy, I have always filed complaints to solve problems for children,” she told Bridge. 

The federal response could be “potentially huge” for parents of students with disabilities whose school districts are still denying make-up services based on state guidance, Kmetz said. 

“The buck stops with MDE,” she said. “MDE has the responsibility to make sure that the services are being provided and that all the districts are complying.”

Federal civil rights investigators first informed the state of their findings in June 2023, setting off a nearly year-long exchange as MDE disputed various findings.

How long the process will go on is not yet clear, which means more waiting for parents and students first impacted by the pandemic more than four years ago.

Heather Eckner, director of statewide education for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, called findings of the federal investigation “very validating” since many advocates had already pointed out the issues with MDE’s guidance.

“It's promising that there could be some greater systemic relief on the way, and yet it's hard to be optimistic, when in Michigan, we so repeatedly experience all of these systemic barriers,” she said. 

Brian Hagler, the Lansing dad, said acknowledging families’ loss during the pandemic “would go a long way towards healing the rift between the parents and their school districts.” 

What the findings mean for Michigan public school districts 

The public school district in Lansing, where Christopher Hagler struggled with remote learning due to his disabilities, acknowledges ”could've done a better job serving all of our students, especially those with special needs,” during the pandemic, spokesperson Ryan Gilding said. 

The district has since reorganized its special education department and worked with the Ingham County Intermediate School District “to bring the best education possible to our students,” he added.


But statewide, MDE’s “delayed action” to address the federal government’s findings affects local school districts’ ability to provide services to students, said Abby Cypher, executive director of the Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education.

When and if local school districts are required to provide extra services, they’ll likely do so without the roughly $5.6 billion in pandemic relief funds that had been sent to Michigan schools but is now expiring, Cypher noted. 

It’s “evident” that districts wanted to “do it right” during the pandemic, and some may have despite flawed guidance by the state, she said. 

Jason Mellema, superintendent of Ingham Intermediate School District told Bridge that he had read about the federal government’s findings but did not know the level of detail until a Bridge reporter provided the notice document.

Mellema said he hopes a remedy is “established sooner rather than later.”

“We've got to make sure that if there's been an issue, if things haven't been applied the right way, we need to understand what the standard is and then work toward that,” he said. “I think it would be unwise of school districts to make guesses right now because that could actually make it to where we're worse.” 

Bob Lusk, a lawyer with experience representing both school districts and parents of students in special education programs, told Bridge that if MDE admits to wrongdoing, the state could be vulnerable to a class action lawsuit.

If and when the state agrees to a settlement, he predicted some school districts will have to consider additional parent requests for compensatory education. But as more time passes, Lusk anticipates fewer parents will be focused on the issue, while some students will have graduated or moved to other schools.

“I think the longer it takes to resolve, probably the fewer cases there are going to be of people requesting services,” he said. 

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