IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides some basic ideas for families to consider while students are doing school in a whole new way during the COVID-19 shutdown.
  • As always, programming for students who qualify for special education services is uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and needs. Special education law maintains a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), although some aspects of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be deliverable under emergency circumstances.
  • Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, spoke directly to special education parents and students in a 13-minute public address April 17, 2020. A recording is available on YouTube: Reykdal Addresses Grading & Supports for Students with Disabilities During School Closures.
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information.

 

Full Article

Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students staying home during the coronavirus crisis. Their recipes for success include carefully structured schedules, a mix of online and offline curriculum materials, regularly planned check-ins for parents and students, social-emotional support strategies, and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents and needs.

If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. Many schools are struggling to serve special education students without their regular routines and spaces. Some families have set aside academic pursuits for now as they focus on getting through each day safely and with adequate nutrition. The state requires districts to provide learning opportunities, but there is no mandate for students to participate, according to Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal.

During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. This article provides some basic first steps families can consider while students are doing school in a whole new way. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.

For more about social-emotional support for the family and a couple of videos with mindfulness practices for all ages and abilities, see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

How long will we do school like this?

Forecasting whether school buildings can safely reopen in Fall 2020 is difficult. Governor Jay Inslee says he will make decisions based on guidance from scientists and medical experts.

Superintendent Reykdal participated in the April 6, 2020, press conference when Gov. Inslee announced that schools would remain closed throughout the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Reykdal has encouraged districts and families to plan for both a reopening and the possibility school facility closures could continue into Fall 2020.

On April 17, 2020, Reykdal addressed special-education parents and students directly. In response to questions that have come to his email inbox, he explained that school districts in Washington have local oversight through school boards, which determine policies. He advised that families and schools should do their best to document what aspects of a student’s special education program are deliverable during distance learning and which services aren’t being provided so that additional learning might be provided through compensatory services when possible.

Addressing parents, Reykdal said, “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out. Make sure you understand who is responsible for delivering those services at this time and whether you think that IEP needs to be revisited. That is the right of parents, and that is the relationship that has to happen on the local level. We’ll keep guiding to this. The expectation is clear. We are delivering special education services. We are delivering supports for students with disabilities. There’s no exemption from that. There’s no waiver from that.”

One way for parents to consider what is most important for learning during the closures is to carefully read through the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is the first section in a student’s IEP. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.

Try for some learning, and document what is going on

During uncertain times, some access to meaningful learning is clearly better than nothing. Each family will need to decide what is workable for everyone involved. Consider that:

  • A 30-minute period of structured learning, a few times a week, may be a worthy and appropriate goal for a family struggling with multiple barriers to educational access.
  • Learning that is incorporated into the family’s routine of meal-preparation, household chores, budgeting, nature walks… might be appropriate to include in a conversation about progress monitoring and educational impact.
  • PAVE provides several short, self-directed video lessons for students to explore social studies, genealogy, science, and more!
  • The whole family might learn together by taking a virtual field trip to a national park or a museum. A few places offering that type of learning are included on PAVE’s list of Links for Learning at Home During School Closure.
  • For students close to graduation or accessing high-school transition programs, PAVE provides additional ideas in an article called High School Halt.

Communication between the school and family is key to figuring out what is appropriate in these unprecedented circumstances. It will be important to document what is or is not provided by the school district, the level of accessibility and contacts or attempted contacts between the school and family.

Decisions about Compensatory Services are up to the IEP team

Families can meet with the IEP team virtually or by phone to discuss whether the student qualifies for compensatory services. Compensatory services are educational opportunities provided outside of regular school to make up for IEP services that were not provided even though the student was available to receive them. A student also might qualify for compensatory services if the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.

Some students will not be able to receive appropriate compensatory education until school reopens. Others might get some compensatory services through distance learning. What is appropriate and practical is a decision for the IEP team to discuss.

Parents parent, teachers teach

Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. The Florida Inclusion Network provides Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats, which begins with the recommendation to “remember that your role is a parental one. Your child needs family.” The first tip on the resource goes on to say:

“Teachers are still teaching, just in a virtual format, and with a different schedule. It can be confusing for students if families try to assume the role of teacher. Explain to your child that their teacher is still their teacher, and that you are in communication with the teacher to help them learn at home. While you may feel more pressure with your child at home, try to think of it as a different way of helping your child with learning.”

Start with critical ingredients: meals and learning tools

In some circumstances, schools and families start by talking about access to food and basic resources. Superintendent Reykdal has repeatedly stated that the number one priority of schools throughout the state is to ensure access to nutrition. An interactive map on the website of Educational Service District 113 includes statewide information about where meals are delivered and where families can pick up free food by “Grab-and-Go.”

Some families are navigating how to get basic school supplies, such as pencils, paper, and books. Others seek internet access, cell phones, computers, or assistive technologies to make learning from home more workable.

Families can request help from their school district if they are having a difficult time getting equipment or connectivity. Contact information for school districts, charter schools, tribal schools, and Educational Service Districts is available on a statewide Education Directory.

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is providing free cell phones and minutes to low-income families through a federal program called Lifeline. State-specific information about this option is available from the Health Care Authority. Some internet providers offer temporarily free plans, and some public spaces, such as libraries, provide internet access in their parking lots.

Language access is protected

Some families face barriers related to language access. Under state and federal law, all parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand, and students have a right to accessible learning materials. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.

Clarify a communication strategy with the school

Finding a practical and consistent way to communicate with the school is critical. A few options are telephone, internet, U.S. Mail, packets delivered by school bus or materials and letters delivered along with meals. OSPI provides a website page for Special Education Guidance for COVID-19. Included is a Question & Answer section with guidance related to school and family communication:

“Districts should consider the need and methods to provide proactive and ongoing communication with parents of students with disabilities. District should identify communication channels to and from parents and ensure there are real-time opportunities for questions and concerns to be responded to and needs addressed.”

Special Education continues, with safety and practicality

Some students with disabilities have individualized needs that are difficult to meet when teaching cannot be hands on. Not every Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be fully implemented during the national crisis. Schools maintain the responsibility, however, to offer reasonable and appropriate access to learning, according to OSPI:

“Districts should prioritize health and safety of students, staff, and communities. Districts should identify and acknowledge service delivery limitations, as well as the need for districts to make every effort to fully implement a student’s IEP or 504 Plan once school resumes. This requirement to ‘make every effort…’ does not allow a district to decline all services to students with an IEP and only offer compensatory services at a later date.”

OSPI recommends a Continuous Learning Plan

A Continuous Learning Plan is a new tool provided by the state to help children of all abilities learn while they are home because of the crisis caused by the pandemic. According to OSPI, “The Continuous Learning Plan is not intended to replace a student’s IEP, but rather to document individual decisions for special education services throughout the duration of the school facility closure.”

The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is part of a downloadable document published April 7, 2020: Supporting Inclusionary Practices during School Facility Closure. Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education, worked with many agency partners to design the 31-page guidance document. The introductory paragraphs include the following statement:

“Providing equitable access and instruction during these times will require creative and flexible thinking to support continuous learning, where students and educators are in different locations. Educators and families should explore creative ways to respond to diverse languages, cultures, socio-economic status, abilities, and needs. This resource offers suggestions for sustaining inclusionary practices for students with disabilities through continuous learning opportunities.”

OSPI encourages special education staff to seek ways to talk by phone or meet virtually with families to discuss annual learning goals, evaluations, and other aspects of the IEP. Staff are encouraged to find creative ways to deliver lessons that support meaningful progress toward learning goals—or to set new goals that make sense and contribute to relevant and achievable learning under the circumstances.

Family caregivers who choose to participate in IEP meetings during school facility closures could decide as members of a team to review and amend the IEP. The team might consider the “service matrix,” which is the chart on the IEP document that shows how many minutes of each service a student receives, and which school staff are responsible to provide the service. There is no expectation for IEP services to be delivered exactly as the IEP states during this national emergency, and OSPI encourages districts to prioritize health and safety, student educational needs, and parent communication. Districts have flexibility in how they document decisions made in real-time.

An IEP team might decide to amend the IEP service matrix to reflect services being provided during the closure and to services that will begin once normal school operations resume. Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided once school resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document temporary services provided during the closure.

For general information about the IEP meeting process, whose required to be there, and how to formally request an IEP meeting, see PAVE’s article: Sample Letter to Request an IEP meeting.

The Continuous Learning Plan includes a sample meeting agenda:

  • Welcome and introductions
  • Family communication preferences–tool/modality, frequency, times of day/week, etc.
  • Family supports needed–technology devices, internet access, materials, etc.
  • Prioritize continuous learning activities based on student and family needs.
  • Determine continuous learning services through school facility closure.
  • Begin planning for services and supports once school resumes.

The plan includes space to document an overview of the student’s Present Levels of Performance, which are determined through evaluation and form the basis of specially designed instruction and goal setting. If the Present Levels statements are incomplete or outdated, goal setting and instructional planning can be difficult.

The temporary learning plan has a place to document when an educational evaluation was last provided and when a three-year evaluation is required. School staff and families may need to get creative if new data needs to be collected in order to design a plan that best meets a student’s current or upcoming needs when school resumes.

Other sections of the Continuous Learning Plan help the team consider:

  • Learning Priorities during the school shutdown
  • Continuous Learning Goals, which may match or differ from IEP goals
  • How to measure progress toward Continuous Learning Goals
  • Accommodations/Modifications needed for distance learning
  • Supports that staff and family need during this time
  • How Specially Designed Instruction is delivered, when and by whom
  • Related Services: who, when, how (some schools can access telehealth for speech and occupational therapies, for example)
  • Secondary Transition goals (see PAVE’s article, High School Halt)
  • Plan for eventual return to school
  • Other considerations

Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want to ask school staff whether they plan to use OSPI’s Continuous Learning Plan agenda. PAVE provides a template family members can use to design their own Handout for the Team to share their specific ideas and concerns.

Big Picture goals to consider

OSPI’s guidance includes the following tenets of inclusionary practices:

  • All students feel a sense of belonging and value, as full members of the school community.
  • All students have access to equitable and high-quality, meaningful instruction.
  • Instruction is culturally responsive, and student and family centered.

When communicating with school staff, families can have these tenets ready and request that each one is addressed somehow through the planning.

Here are additional ideas to help your child learn:

  • Set up comfortable, adaptable spaces for learning. Include alternatives to sitting for children who need variety, sensory support or more movement. If the IEP includes accommodations for special seating, consider if those ideas could work at home.
  • Establish a schedule that includes breaks (recess/nature walks) and activities of daily living. The amount of academic time needs to consider all impacted family members. Here are sample family schedules: COVID 19 Schedule From Motherly, Get-Organized-Mom.com, Homeschool.
  • Make sure the day includes time away from screens to reduce eye strain and fatigue from being in one physical position too long.
  • During academic learning time, limit distractions from siblings, gaming devices, tablets, television shows, etc.
  • Find or create support networks. Some Parent-to-Parent groups are meeting virtually, and individuals can make agreements to check on each other. The Arc of Washington State provides information about regional P2P networks.
  • Be patient with your child, teachers, medical providers, and yourself. No one has ever been here before, and all are trying to figure it out.

PAVE staff are available to provide 1:1 support. Click Get Help at wapave.org to fill out a Helpline Request form. For additional resources related to the pandemic itself, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis.