Key Information and Creative Questions for Families to Consider During COVID-19 Closures

A Brief Overview

  • While schools are operating, districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. Read on to learn more about FAPE and student rights.
  • Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 also are still in place, without waivers.
  • FAPE requirements for high-school transition services apply now, as always. PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.
  • How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress. A Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) is a tool schools and families might use for temporary circumstances. PAVE provides another article describing that process: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.
  • Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Read on for more information about Open Meetings.
  • The final section of this article includes creative conversation starters, some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff.
  • To support well-being for family members of all ages and abilities, PAVE provides this article, which includes links to videos with simple mindfulness/breathing practices: How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe.

Full Article

With schools closed and lives disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, families impacted by disability have unique questions. This article includes key information about student rights and creative conversation starters that family caregivers might consider when planning to meet with school staff over the phone, through written communication or over a web-based platform.

Student rights have not been waived

Students with disabilities have protections under federal and state laws. Those rights and protections are not waived during the school building closures. While schools are operating, districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. The protections of FAPE include the right to:

  • Appropriate evaluation if there is a known or suspected disability condition that may impact educational access (Please refer to PAVE’s articles on Evaluations Part 1 and Child Find for more information)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in areas of learning with significant educational impact from the disability and an identified need for SDI
  • Meaningful progress toward goals, which are developed to measure the effectiveness of Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)
  • Accommodations (extra time, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, other Assistive Technology…)
  • Modifications (shorter or different assignments, testing, etc.)
  • Special services (speech/language, occupational or physical therapy through video conferencing, for example)
  • Not get bullied or discriminated against because of a disability circumstance

FAPE rights related to accommodations, modifications and anti-bullying measures are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and apply to all students with disabilities, including those who have Section 504 Plans and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). FAPE rights related to evaluation process, SDI, and formal goal setting are aspects of the IEP and are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In accordance with the IDEA, the IEP includes a description of the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. 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.

The Wrightslaw page encourages parents to read and re-read the present levels statements before meeting with the school. These statements form the basis for the student’s goals and other services. Up-to-date and comprehensive data within the present levels section of the IEP can be key to a successful outcome.

Wrightslaw encourages family caregivers to provide input for the present levels statements and to request further evaluation if the statements are incomplete or out of date. Creativity and collaboration are encouraged to allow for data collection while school buildings are closed: “Parents, never forget why you are essential members of your child’s IEP team. You are essential because your job is to represent your child’s interests. So, you need to be an active member, not a spectator. Your goal is to work with other members of the team to develop IEPs tailored to meet your child’s unique needs.”

No Waivers to Early Learning Requirements

Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 also are still in place, without waivers.

Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) provides COVID-19 guidance for families of children in early learning through the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program. Included is information about the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), how to manage a transition from IFSP to school-based services during the pandemic and tips for telemedicine appointments and protection of confidentiality.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance to schools in Washington. In early May 2020, OSPI issued guidance specifically related to early childhood programs during the COVID-19 closure. In particular, the document addresses a child’s rights through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Services for children Birth-3 are defined by IDEA’s Part C, and school-based services for children 3-21 are defined by IDEA’s Part B. About 3 months before a child with an IFSP turns 3, the school district is responsible to evaluate the child to determine eligibility for an IEP. PAVE provides a general article about the early learning transition process.

According to OSPI guidance, “School districts are expected to move forward with initial Part B evaluations as specified in the Early Childhood Transition from Part C to B Timeline Requirements. School districts must make reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and may utilize alternative means for conducting virtual assessment and IEP team meetings, such as telephone or videoconferencing.”

Communication is key

How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress that requires communication and collaboration between schools and families. On its website page titled Special Education Guidance for COVID-19, OSPI provides links to numerous documents that guide schools in best-practice for outreach to families.

On May 5, 2020, OSPI issued a Question & Answer document to address special-education delivery. “This is a national emergency,” the document states, “and districts should be communicating with families and making decisions based on student need and how those services can be provided. There is no one right way to provide services.”

IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can build different versions of the documents to support at-home learning now and in-school services when buildings reopen. A Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) is a tool schools and families might also use for temporary circumstances. PAVE provides an article describing that process, with linkages to the plan’s template: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.

OSPI notes that health and safety are top priority and that some aspects of a student’s program may not be possible to implement during the crisis. Discussion about Compensatory Services to make up for elements of FAPE not provided during the closure will require a review of documentation.

Keep notes about student learning

Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to education and/or special services during days that schools are providing educational services to all students. Parents can ask the district to define its official dates of operation. When a school is officially closed, the district is not responsible to provide FAPE, according to OSPI guidance.

State guidance related to the provision of FAPE aligns with federal guidance issued since the pandemic began. On March 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a fact sheet describing the federal rights of students with disabilities:

“If the school is open and serving other students, the school must ensure that the student continues to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student.”

Families can reach out to School Boards and Counselors

Families are meeting these emergency circumstances from a wide range of places economically, medically, emotionally, and logistically. School districts statewide have different staffing arrangements and approaches, and Washington schools are locally managed and overseen.

Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington).Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

For additional support, families might consider reaching out to the school counseling office. The president of the Washington School Counselor’s Association, Jenny Morgan, provided comments in a May 7, 2020, webinar moderated by League of Education Voters. She said school counselors provide a broad range of services, from academic advising to social and emotional support. The American School Counselor Association provides a handout describing the roles of a school counselor.

Morgan says school counselors are uniquely trained to address the academic, career, and social/emotional development of all students through a comprehensive school counseling program. “We are advocates for your child’s educational needs,” she says. “Please do not hesitate to reach out to your school counselor for assistance and support. We are here for you.”

Creative conversation starters

Here are some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff. Keep in mind that some answers will not be easily provided, and conversations are ongoing.

  • My child struggles to understand social distancing. What strategy can we use to teach and practice this skill so it will be ready to use when schools reopen?
  • What social story does school staff have to share that will be accessible for my student to understand the coronavirus and why we need to stay home and practice good hygiene?
  • How can the school help my student cope with a high level of anxiety, grief, fear (any emotion that significantly impacts a student’s ability to focus on learning)? Which school counselor can help?
  • My child is turning 3 this month. Who can we talk to at the school district to help get our child ready for preschool? 
  • My student does not want to do school right now. How can we work together to motivate my student to participate in learning and do the work?
  • My student wants to cook, research cars, talk about space flight, do craft projects, walk in nature, play with the family dog, plant a garden … right now. How can we make sure that continuous learning objectives match my child’s natural curiosity?
  • My student loves to play the drums (or something else specific). How can drumming and music (or any interest) be part of the math (or other subject) assignment?
  • The homework packet, online platform, etc., is not accessible to my child. How can we work together and create a learning plan that will work for our family at this time?  
  • My child has a health condition that creates a greater risk for COVID-19 exposure. What could school look like for my child if buildings reopen but my child cannot safely re-enter a traditional classroom?
  • My student is in high school. How can we work together to make sure that the IEP Transition Plan and the High-School and Beyond Plan align? Can we invite the school counselor to our next meeting if we need more help?
  • Can my student do a self-directed project or an alternative assignment to earn a grade or meet a specific objective? Is there a modified way to demonstrate the learning, perhaps through a video, an art project, or a conference with the teacher?
  • Who is the transition counselor assigned to our school by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR)? What tools and people can my student work with right now to explore career options and prepare for adult life?
  • What can school staff do to make sure that my student’s current education includes progress toward independent living goals? (Note: PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.)

During the school closures related to the coronavirus pandemic, families with students of all ages and abilities are figuring out strategies for coping with the disruptions. Additional articles from PAVE provide information about working with the school to design a Continuous Learning Plan, preparing for a virtual meeting, student rights during the School Shutdown and How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe during the crisis.

IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning

A Brief Overview

  • This article provides some considerations for families while students are doing school in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 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 because of health and safety concerns.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families.
  • Updates and additional handouts for families are available in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.  
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by OSPI to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information about how to make contingency plans so students continue to make progress regardless of where education is provided.

 

Full Article

Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students during the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Their recipes for success include carefully built schedules; a mix of curriculum materials that adapt to different settings; regular check-ins between school and family; social-emotional support strategies; and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents, and needs regardless of where education is provided.

If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. Neither are schools, which are being asked to redesign themselves by the moment. This article provides some basic considerations for families and schools who serve students with special educational needs. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.

For more about social-emotional support for the family see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short mindfulness practice videos for all ages/abilities: Live Mindfully.

School decisions are made locally

Uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year is ongoing. At an Aug. 5, 2020, press conference, Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.”

WA Governor Jay Inslee stated at the press conference that decisions about whether school buildings are open will be made locally. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. Public comment is part of each public meeting, and the open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

No disability rights are waived

Reykdal has encouraged families to stay engaged with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams regardless of where the student is learning. “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out,” Reykdal said in April 2020.

“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.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families. Included is a section about “recovery services” to support students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic.

TIP: Collaborate, communicate, keep careful records

Documentation about what is happening with the student is key to discussions about the IEP moving forward and whether the student gets recovery services. Family caregivers and school staff can collect and share notes that address these questions and more:

  • Have educational materials been accessible during distance learning?
  • What learning location will work for this student and the family moving forward?
  • When or how often has the school communicated with the family, and what could improve that communication?
  • Does the student have the tools and technology needed for learning?
  • Where has the student made progress? (any bright spots?)
  • Where has the student lost ground? (any lost skills?)
  • What else needs to be addressed to meet the unique needs of this individual student, so the student can make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances?

Recovery services are not the same as compensatory services

To determine whether recovery services are needed, OSPI encourages IEP teams to:

  1. review progress toward IEP goals, and
  2. assess progress toward grade-level standards within the general education curriculum.

Both points are standard aspects of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that entitles eligible students to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA rights are not waived due to COVID-19.

OSPI makes clear that recovery services are part of the school day and are not the same as “compensatory services,” which 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 may qualify for compensatory services if it is determined through a dispute resolution process that the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.

Recovery services, on the other hand, are considered in the context of the national health emergency that impacted all students and staff within the system. OSPI’s 2020 special education guidance document states: “The extent of a student’s recovery services, if needed, must be an individualized determination made by the IEP team, considering individual student needs, in the context of instructional opportunities provided to all students during the school facility closures.”

TIP: Consider a child’s total circumstances

Keep this in mind: A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. To meet the standard of FAPE, a school provides an individualized program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.” That phrase is part of IEP case law, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

A child’s circumstances include, but are not limited to:

  • Strengths, talents, assets
  • Disability
  • Family (work schedules, finances, housing…)
  • COVID-related impacts (distance learning, medical fragility of self or family member, grief from a loved one’s death or economic hardships…)
  • Mental health (impacts of social isolation, loss of friendship connections…)
  • Whatever is true for the individual child!

A key question for all IEP teams: How can we create equitable educational opportunities, in light of all of these aspects of the child’s circumstances?

Section 504 protects students too

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provides FAPE protections, and none of those rights are waived because of COVID-19. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, so students who receive support through a Section 504 Plan have civil rights protections under that federal law. Students with IEPs have Section 504 protections in addition to the protections of the IDEA.

School staff and families might discuss whether a student on a Section 504 Plan has made adequate progress within the general education curriculum and whether the accommodations and modifications in the plan are correctly adjusted for the student to access learning in light of the pandemic. Families and schools can discuss what additional supports are needed so the student can access the curriculum equitably.

Recovery services may support academics or social emotional learning

OSPI provides a few examples of recovery services to help families and schools think creatively about what is possible:

  • A student who regressed behaviorally during the closure may need new or different positive behavior interventions during the school day.
  • A student who lacked social skills opportunities during the closure may need additional instruction in social communication.
  • A student who lost academic skills during the closure may need additional supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom.

How and when additional services are provided is up to school/family teams to consider and may depend on the district’s reopening schedule. Some recovery services may be deliverable through distance learning, while others may require schools to be fully open.

Focus on key elements of learning

Within the Inclusionary Practices section of its reopening guidance, OSPI highlights four core areas that support planning and teaching students with disabilities in a variety of learning environments:

  • Family Partnerships and Communication to foster continuity of learning, high expectations, and support to students through shared goals and partnerships between home and school.
  • Student Engagement to maintain knowledge and skills, feelings of connectedness, curiosity, and a love of learning while progressing toward benchmarks and standards.
  • Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports to create positive learning experiences and shared understanding of expectations to help students achieve learning goals.
  • Instructional Delivery and Universal Design for Continuous Learning to create conditions that make learning accessible, stimulating, relevant and rewarding so students will make academic gains and develop self-determination.

TIP: Parents parent, teachers teach

Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. When all schools were in distance-learning mode, the Florida Inclusion Network provided Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats. Included is this recommendation:

“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.”

Presume competence and maintain high expectations

OSPI’s resource about special education access in the 2020-21 school year contains a chapter called Inclusionary Practices Across the Continuum of School Reopening Models. The first paragraph states (emphasis added):

“In the context of change, students with disabilities are most successful when educators and families presume competence in what they are capable of learning and accomplishing in school. Rather than view student challenges or inability to meet learning objectives in new and different learning environments as a deficit in the student due to a disability, recognize how instruction or environments may be affecting what a student learns and how they demonstrate what they know.

Students learn best when they feel valued and when people hold high expectations. When students cannot communicate effectively, or behavior impedes participation and learning, explore multiple pathways for understanding and assume students want to learn but may have difficulty expressing their needs.”

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) encourages inclusion

Federal special education law (IDEA) entitles students to individualized education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. While education is being provided in a mix of environments, IEP teams may need to think in new ways about how the right to LRE is protected.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) issued a policy brief regarding LRE in the wake of COVID-19. The brief includes examples of how LRE might be provided for a student in a virtual, hybrid, or traditional model of school. For example, a fictional 3rd grader with special education services to support learning in math and English Language Arts (ELA) could attend a virtual classroom with all students and receive instruction in break-out rooms with math and ELA teachers at additional times.  

The right to LRE is not waived due to COVID-19. “NASDSE stands ready to support its members with the effort of ensuring all students receive FAPE in the LRE,” the brief concludes.

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.

A Continuous Learning Plan may help with organization

A Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is a tool developed by the state in spring 2020 to help IEP teams make contingency plans. The plan does not replace a student’s IEP, but rather documents individual decisions for special education services when a student is not fully attending in-person school.

The 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.”

Review the Present Levels of Performance

To consider what is most important for learning, regardless of where education is provided, IEP teams can carefully review 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.

PAVE also provides an article and a handout to help families participate in the goal-setting process: IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals.

Request an IEP meeting to clarify how services are provided

Family caregivers can request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns. For health and safety reasons, the meeting may be virtual, by phone, in a park…. Teams can get creative to meet all needs. PAVE provides an article about requesting a meeting and a letter template to support a written request. An additional article: Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting.

While reviewing and amending 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. An IEP team might decide to amend the matrix to reflect services provided remotely versus services provided in person at school.

Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided when in-person school fully resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document contingency plans during remote learning.

Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want 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.

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

Additional ideas to support families

  • If a child is doing school from home, try to 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.
  • On days when school is integrated with home life, 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 MotherlyGet-Organized-Mom.comHomeschool.
  • Make sure each 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.