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 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.