Shoes and school supplies

Students who were enrolled in a public school between March 13, 2020 and May 14, 2021 and have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, can apply to be reimbursed for educational expenses incurred during that period.

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Georgia parents of students with disabilities are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $500 for education expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic, but time is running out to apply — the deadline is June 30 — and most of the money is still unclaimed.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced the program in his January state of the state address, pledging to allocate $10 million from the Governors Emergency Education Relief set aside by the CARES Act to pay parents of students with special needs back for qualified educational expenses.

“Experts in education and pediatrics have been sounding the alarm for months, and I believe the toll the pandemic is taking on the next generation is reaching a crisis point,” Kemp said. “These challenges are most concerning for our special-needs children whose educational achievement, personal development, and emotional well-being have been severely impacted.”

Applications opened May 13, and parents can submit an application for up to three students on the Georgia Department of Education’s website.

Students who were enrolled in a public school between March 13, 2020, and May 14, 2021, and have an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, can apply to be reimbursed for educational expenses incurred during that period. The application is online, and parents will need to provide scanned proof of expenses along with information including their child’s Georgia Testing Identifier — that’s a 10-digit number that can be found on the student’s report card or on their IEP and may be labeled state ID.

Expenses specific to special needs students are eligible, including speech therapy, tutoring, assistive technology or learning software, counseling and transportation. Parents will need to include proof of payment in their application.

Hannah Heck is a policy consultant who previously worked for former Gov. Sonny Perdue and has a son with Down syndrome. She’s applying to be reimbursed for a learning coach she brought on as schools abruptly shifted online at the pandemic’s outset.

“Back in March 2020, that stretch, we were just up a creek,” she said. “We had to find someone to come and sit with my son and work with him because I had three other kids at home, and just logistically, if we wanted them to get an education, we needed another adult in the house.”

Another mom she knows is asking to be reimbursed for a large touchscreen monitor because her child could not use the small Chromebook provided by their school. But smaller expenses like accessible learning materials or fidget toys for children on the autism spectrum can also qualify.

The sudden switch to digital learning was especially hard on families with special needs, and many of them turned to private providers for help, Heck said.

“Some families just saw regression, both in skills and behavior with their kids, so they sought out private therapies elsewhere, and this allows them to pay for some of those co-pays or the expenses of those therapies,” she said.

As of Friday, the Georgia Department of Education has received 2,394 applications for 2,704 students. Even if each of those students received the full $500, that would only absorb about $1.3 million of the $10 million allocated.

That’s concerning, said Steven Quinn, outreach director for the school advocacy group GeorgiaCAN.

“Right now we’re working to get the word out — through email, townhall calls, and social media,” he said. “We’re also aware of a handful of other nonprofits and school districts doing the same. We know our network of special needs parents are taking advantage, but we are worried there are thousands of other eligible families who don’t know about this reimbursement program, and time is running out for them.”

The fact that the program is based on reimbursement is likely part of the reason for the muted response, Heck said. Many parents likely never heard of the program, she said, and most of those who did did not hold onto their receipts, though bank statements can also serve as evidence of a purchase.

“It’s tricky for families who maybe didn’t have the money up front in the first place, or if they didn’t know that reimbursement was coming, they may have needed tutoring to help a child who was struggling, but they didn’t engage that because they didn’t know there would be a way to pay for it in the future,” Heck said.

Heck said she will call on the governor to reallocate whatever money is left over from the $10 million to help families of students with special needs get caught up academically after the pandemic.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.