While many active-duty families make choices that balance the needs of their family with their military lifestyle, these choices can be more complicated for families with a child with special needs. “Dependent children’s education” is the top military life issue among respondents who have children with special needs, and “financial issues and stress” is the top stressor they experience in their military life, compared to families without a child with special needs who ranked “time away from family” as the top issue and “isolation from family and friends” as the top stressor. Although military family respondents continue to report that “time away from family” is a top issue, military families with children who have special needs often voluntarily live apart from their service member (“geobach”) to provide stability for their children’s education.
In fact, 23% of all active-duty family respondents reported geobaching in the last five years. Among geobaching families who had a child with a special education plan (Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan), 65% cited their “children’s education” as one of their reasons to geobach. By contrast, half (49%) of geobaching families with children not enrolled in special education reported children’s education as one of the reasons for geobaching.
While some respondents noted that COVID-19- related closures provided an advantage for families who could now enroll students in a new school online after a move, for many active duty families who have children enrolled in special education (28%), these closures complicated an already challenging process of transferring special education services to a new school. These respondents reported their top challenge when transferring to a new school during COVID-19 was transferring theircIEP and/or 504 Plan. Despite the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children having been signed by all 50 states and the District of Columbia, which states that “the receiving State shall initially provide comparable services to a student with disabilities based on his/her current IndividualizedEducation Program (IEP),”3 half of active-duty family respondents with a child enrolled in special education who PCSed since March 2020 reported they had trouble transferring their child(ren)’s IEP (51%) or 504 Plan (48%) to their new school. The FY21 NDAA included language to allow service members the ability to request a continued stay at their current location when there is a “documented substantial risk of transferring medical care or educational services to a new provider or school at the specific time of permanent change of station.”While this provision would not solve the difficulty military families face in transferring their child(ren)’s IEP, it would allow them to potentially avoid having to do so at inopportune times. Moreover, the FY21 NDAA allows service members to request a second review of their new assignment if they believe the gaining location would cause undue hardship on their family. The move to virtual education during COVID-19 also impeded necessary in-person evaluations for educational services, and delayed many families from obtaining an initial IEP and/or 504 Plan for their children.