To date, at least 124,000 schools across the country have closed to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Some states, including California and New Jersey, have closed their schools until further notice, and many more have closed them for the remainder of the academic year. In response to these closures, educators are scrambling to move lessons online, and families are struggling to adapt to homeschooling.
For the families of the 6 million students with disabilities across the country, this shift away from a school setting presents significant additional challenges, as many of these students rely on interventions, accommodations, and specialized instruction to support their learning needs. To help address these challenges, policymakers, school districts, and educators can—building on previous guidance, and using existing flexibility within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—support students with disabilities by:
- ensuring any virtual/distance learning platforms, content, and curriculum are accessible and embed features of universal design for learning;
- promoting use of provisional Individualized Education Program (IEPs), developed with parents to outline accommodations, interventions, and supplementary aids and services comparable to the student’s current IEP that take into account social distancing guidelines;
- expanding access to extended-year services for student’s provisional IEPs, to ensure sufficient continuation of learning supports in the summer in addition to consideration for compensatory services; and
- providing for flexibility on special education evaluation timelines, so long as districts continue to make progress toward completing evaluations and a new timeline is agreed upon with the parent.
School Districts Need Guidance as They Move to Distance Learning
As school districts across the country shutter their buildings for the foreseeable future in response to the COVID-19 crisis, thousands of district leaders and teachers are scrambling to provide distance learning opportunities for students. Educators and policymakers making this shift are left with glaring questions of how to best serve students with disabilities while remaining in compliance with federal education laws.
Many states are letting districts decide how to implement distance learning. This raises the question of what actions districts can and should take to continue educating students with disabilities given substantial constraints, and what guidance states can provide to support districts in this endeavor.
Limited federal guidance has led to confusion about how to provide services to students with disabilities as well as frenzied debate about the potential for waivers from federal special education requirements. Some districts previously advised halting all instruction and grading for fear of noncompliance with federal special education laws. However, federal guidance released thus far has made it clear that this is not an acceptable reason to cease the continuation of learning during this crisis. Additionally, special education law already provides for sufficient flexibility, but educators, school leaders, and parents need support in understanding how to utilize that flexibility.
IDEA Requirements and Virtual/Distance Learning
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal special education law outlining rights and protections for students with disabilities in schools. Specifically, IDEA mandates that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The Individualized Education Program (IEP)—a legally binding document developed in collaboration with parents, teachers, educational psychologists, and school leaders—outlines the expectations for FAPE and LRE for each student with a disability. As districts increasingly shift to distance learning, these requirements continue to apply, and so policymakers, districts, and parents will need to work collaboratively to determine how to create provisional IEPs for distance learning.
The IEP outlines a variety of services a student must receive to make progress throughout the year, but as districts move to distance learning, many of those services will have to look drastically different. Students with learning disabilities who, for example, receive more intensive reading instruction in an inclusive classroom might instead be asked to work one-on-one with a special educator over the phone or video chat, resulting in a change to their LRE. A student with a disability such as Autism, however, might miss out on important group sessions with school social workers that cannot easily be conducted virtually, requiring perhaps an even more resource-intensive response when school resumes.
If school closures continue for any appreciable time, they may even impact districts’ ability to conduct the initial evaluations necessary to determine if a student is eligible for special education in the first place, let alone use that evaluation to support the creation of a student’s IEP. Evaluations often require extensive in-person testing to understand a student’s current academic and functional abilities. Most assessments are traditionally completed by a school clinician, and schools have sixty days to complete the initial evaluation after receiving parental consent. School closures and shifts to distance learning create a great deal of uncertainty for schools and parents about how to complete these evaluations meaningfully within the required timeline.
With an increasing number of states and districts closing for the remainder of the school year due to COVID-19, maintaining consistent support for students with disabilities requires educators, parents, and school leaders to work together to consider immediate and long-term challenges and answer critical questions. What resources will help students with disabilities during the transition to online learning? What should schools do when IEPs require services that must be delivered in person? What are the implications for students making progress toward learning goals outlined in their IEPs? How should districts and states tackle the inevitable learning loss that is expected during long-term school closures?
The federal government has made an initial response that begins to help districts and the special education community find the answers to some of these questions, but there is, as shown below, far more that it can do.
The Beginnings of a Federal Response
The Department of Education released guidance in mid-March stating that as schools close for extended periods due to the pandemic, they must continue to provide FAPE to students with disabilities if distance education is provided for the general student population. The guidance also notes that IEP teams may meet virtually when schools are closed, and any evaluations that are able to be conducted virtually can proceed, with parent consent. If students are not able to receive their required services for an extended period of time due to school closures, the guidance states that the IEP team should determine whether compensatory services are needed, meaning students may receive services at a later time.
Additionally, the recently passed CARES Act included provisions to support education. Specifically, it provides $13.5 billion for elementary and secondary education, which can be used to purchase education technology to support online learning for all students during long-term school closures. State governors will all also receive access to an additional $3 billion for emergency support to school districts and institutions of higher education most significantly impacted by COVID-19.
In addition to providing support through funding, the CARES Act gives the U.S. secretary of education waiver authority for certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Importantly, the CARES Act does not provide waiver authority for IDEA. It does, however, require the secretary to submit a report to Congress within thirty days detailing what waivers may be needed for states and districts to remain in compliance with IDEA. From the outset, disability and civil rights groups have cautioned the use of blanket waivers on IDEA to protect the hard-fought rights of students with disabilities under the IDEA, stating that any waivers that are provided would need to have limits and accountability.
Looking to Past Examples and Guidance
At no time in our country have we experienced such widespread school closures. However, in the wake of past disasters, educators and school leaders in individual districts, states, and regions have faced similar questions about supporting students with disabilities. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the New York Department of Education issued guidance, aligned with federal guidance, on its implementation of IDEA. As students relocated to other schools because of the disaster, the guidance called on schools to consider provisions related to transfer students under IDEA and determine and provide, in consultation with parents, comparable services to each student’s previous IEP. During this time, the state did not find districts in noncompliance if they were unable to meet requirements as a direct result of the emergency. The state also provided flexibility related to timeline requirements to acknowledge the logistical challenges imposed by disasters, but did not waive fundamental due process rights afforded to parents.
The U.S. Department of Education has also issued guidance related to highly mobile children—those who move multiple times throughout their K–12 schooling, such as children in foster care or military connected families—and implementation of IDEA that can provide a useful framework for considering education in our current circumstances. This guidance outlines considerations for determining comparable services for highly mobile students, including the provision of extended-year services—special education and related services typically provided during the summer. The guidance also clarifies that when a child has moved school districts while in the process of evaluation that, though not ideal, districts are allowed to extend the timeline if (1) the district is “making sufficient progress” to complete the evaluation, and (2) the district and a student’s parents come to a mutual agreement on a new timeframe. Importantly, the guidance also strongly encourages schools to complete evaluations for highly mobile children within an expedited thirty-day timeframe.
States are currently tackling special education issues in a variety of ways. For instance, states including Minnesota, Kansas, and Connecticut are updating online question and answer pages multiple times a week to address topics on special education. Given the uncertainty of the timeline for a return to normalcy, it is important for states to provide clear guidance to district leaders, educators, and parents on how to support students with disabilities. In developing further guidance at the federal and state level, policymakers should consider the following principles.
Schools and districts should prioritize platforms, content, and curriculum that embed universal-design for learning (UDL) features. UDL is a framework to embed multiple means of engagement, recognition, and instruction into curriculum broadly, and technology provides an opportunity where this can be accomplished more universally. For instance, ensuring online content and platforms embed features, including screen-readers, to help support students with disabilities such as dyslexia and visual impairments. Having this feature in advance reduces the need for educators to adapt content later.
During the selection process, school leaders should test platforms and curriculum for accessibility and UDL before making decisions. For instance, assistive technology specialists can help identify possible barriers. School leaders identifying which content and curriculum to use can utilize the National Center on Accessible Educational materials’ POUR principles when evaluating new materials: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, Edutopia, and the National Center on Systemic Improvement have compiled lists of accessible digital learning platforms, apps, and other resources for accessible digital learning that are available for educators. If platforms, content, and curriculum are not sufficiently accessible, school leaders should not select those tools.
Provisional IEPs with Comparable Services
States and districts could consider proactively creating guidelines for virtual IEP meetings and the possible implementation of provisional IEPs. Using the model of transfer students applied in other emergency situations, the U.S. Department of Education could issue guidance permitting states to interpret students as transfer students as they transition to distance learning. Educators along with parents could consider identifying services comparable to those in a student’s existing IEP to be offered in the virtual/telecommunication format to ensure the student can access and make progress in any distance learning program. Provisional IEPs allow for short-term implementation of required services within the new distance learning context. Educators and parents should also consider if any additional supplementary aids and services, parental communication, and assistive technology will better support the student during school closures. Any such provisional IEPs should stay in place only until schools reopen, at which time the original IEP should be reinstated and compensatory services should still be considered.
Even with the best intentions of teachers and school leaders across the country, this temporary adjustment to distance learning will likely result in lapses in services for students with disabilities. Districts and states need to be ready to remedy this by implementing extended school-year services (ESY) in addition to considering compensatory services. It is imperative to proactively plan for lost time by creating systems to allow more students access to ESY. In the development of provisional IEPs, parents and educators should consider whether extended-year services will be beneficial to ensure comparable services to the current IEP. States and districts can work together to advocate for funding from the stimulus package to be used to expand access to ESY and compensatory services.
Given the timeline restrictions for evaluations, policymakers should be proactive in relaying additional guidance to districts, educators, and parents. To ensure students are sufficiently supported, schools should be expected to complete as much of the evaluation that can be completed in a distance format adapting to virtual or tele-evaluation procedures, when possible. Acknowledging that this may not be feasible in all circumstances, the U.S. Department of Education should align flexibility to the guidance for highly mobile students—districts should be permitted to extend the sixty-day timeline if they continue to make sufficient progress toward the evaluation and agree on an extended timeline with the parents. If evaluations are unable to be completed during the duration of school closures, districts should complete the evaluation process on an expedited timeline when schools reopen (for example, thirty days). This gives schools the flexibility needed to complete the evaluations in a timely and meaningful manner without requiring blanket waiver provisions on evaluation policies.
Each day brings new updates of disruption to schooling across the country as states continue to extend their school closures. Regardless of the uncertainty of what the future impact of COVID-19 will have on the educational system in the United States, what is certain is that state and district leaders need to act quickly to protect the rights of students with disabilities. In this moment, they must act to empower educators to collaborate with parents and ensure effective support for students with disabilities are maintained in the shift toward virtual learning.
Header photos: A playground swing hangs at the KT Murphy Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut. Sourcc: John Moore/Getty Images