Families with Disability Concerns Take Extra Care when Planning for Emergencies

A Brief Overview

  • All families prepare for emergencies, but extra planning is critical when a loved one has a disability.
  • The Family-To Family Health Information Center provides Information about COVID-19 and updates about local, regional, and statewide healthcare policies and programs.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University offers an Emergency Preparedness Tool Kit for People with Disabilities through its university center called Partnership for People with Disabilities. The downloadable, 29-page booklet includes checklists and resources.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, also provides a downloadable brochure: Preparing Makes Sense for People with Disabilities.
  •   military families, each installation has a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP 10-12). Read on for links to specific military resources.
  • This article includes a variety of resources and ideas about how to be informed and organized, with a disability-specific toolkit and emergency plans that are ready to roll if something unexpected does occur.

Full Article

COVID-19 has highlighted a need for emergency planning, and Washington State families might consider additional contingencies to plan for: winter snowstorms, flooding, wildfires, volcanoes, earthquakes…. The planning can alleviate stress and create a sense of confidence that a plan is in place for everyone’s safety if something unexpected does occur.

To be fully prepared, a family may need an emergency plan and a survival kit to support to a loved one with additional needs that are specific to a disability. Following are guidelines for getting organized and ready, with each person’s individualized needs in mind.

While building an emergency plan and toolkit, families may need to consider how to include tools and strategies for providing a sense of comfort and safety for individuals with anxiety, sensory needs, or behavioral challenges. A favorite blanket, stuffed toy, or noise cancelling headphones might be part of the kit. A handheld electronic device might provide a sense of normalcy; if one is included, be sure chargers or batteries are also part of the toolkit.

Gathering the toolkit ahead of time can enhance a sense of calm and save time when quick action is needed. Family to Family Health Information Center at PAVE has a page set up with tools and links around disability and special healthcare needs.

Be informed

Some disaster scenarios include sheltering in place, and others require movement to a safe location. The Red Cross provides information on a page titled Be Informed to help determine which types of emergencies are most likely in a designated community. Some areas are more prone to forest fires, floods or earthquakes, for example. Consider whether local public systems share information or alert the public if something is happening or about to happen. Will there be a telephone alert or a broadcasted siren? Will there be an emergency broadcast to tune in? The Emergency Alert System (EAS) includes a statewide list of radio stations that broadcast emergency alerts by area.

Consider whether there are shelters nearby, or an evacuation route. The Red Cross encourages people to download the agency’s mobile app to receive local alerts that can include emergency-specific instructions in real time. The agency also provides a page dedicated to disaster safety that takes a step-by-step approach for people with disabilities. Included are guidelines for creating a personal assessment and registering with a local emergency assistance program.

You can also download the FEMA app to get weather alerts from the National Weather Service for up to five different locations.

Make a plan

Create escape routes that are accessible to everyone within the household. Choose a meet-up spot after everyone has evacuated the home, property, or neighborhood. Consider accessibility based on the entire family’s needs: For example, will someone need to arrive at the meet-up spot by wheelchair? If someone will need a helper to evacuate, designate a helper and a back-up person to provide that support.

Tell emergency contacts about the family’s plan. Consider telling neighbors or nearby friends about where medications or mobility assistance devices (crutches, wheelchairs, walkers) are stored in case help is needed to get those things. The plan includes what may happen before, during and after a disaster.

The Red Cross provides a template for a 3-step plan, to be shared and verified with everyone who might be involved or recruited to help:

  1. All household members discuss how to prepare and respond to the types of emergencies most likely to happen where they live, learn, work and play.
  2. Identify responsibilities for each member of the household and plan a way to work as a team.
  3. Practice as many elements of the plan as possible.

Military Families

Military families may have unique and specific concerns. Each installation provides support for a Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP 10-12). Additionally, families might seek assistance from the family support office through the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) or a Family Resource Specialist (Coast Guard).

Here are additional places to seek information about emergency planning for military families:

Fall 2020: Ready or Not

Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal predicts that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.” In preparation, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is turning out new guidance for school districts that serve more than a million students.

About 143,000 Washington students receive special education and related services. No federal or state protections for students with disabilities are waived due to the pandemic.

Decisions about what school looks like are left to local districts, which follow policies established by elected school boards. 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 open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.

Among OSPI guidance released in summer 2020 is a 60-page booklet: Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance. Recommendations encourage schools to collaborate with families in providing equitable access to learning opportunities and to include all students when designing curricula for a range of delivery methods.

PAVE provides an article that summarizes some content from OSPI’s guidance and provides more detail about navigating special education regardless of what school looks like: IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning.

Reykdal and WA Governor Jay Inslee spoke Aug. 5, 2020, at a press conference about school decision-making amid the nation’s ongoing struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Inslee said he would not order the closure of all schools, as he did in spring 2020. Instead, Inslee said he would rely on local districts to use sound judgment about whether school buildings can open safely, in light of a region’s health data.

At the August press conference, Inslee announced plans to send $8.8 million in federal CARES Act stimulus money to OSPI, which will use some funds to cover the costs of internet for students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. OSPI has committed to partner with community-based organizations to help families secure childcare, engage in language translation services, and other parent and family engagement strategies.

CARES Act funds also will support professional development to upgrade how distance learning is delivered statewide. In partnership with OSPI, the state’s nine regional educational service districts (ESDs) will provide support and training to help districts choose a consistent online platform and train staff about best practices. “Last spring, we heard consistently from educators that they needed more training on how to effectively use online learning management systems,” Reykdal said, adding:

“To make online learning more effective this fall, we have to streamline this. Students and parents should be able to focus on learning, and educators should be focused on teaching, without the modality of the instruction getting in the way. Our ESDs will provide educators with training in a handful of learning management systems consistent with guidance we have already sent to districts to simplify their remote learning management systems for families.”

Reykdal and Inslee encouraged school districts in areas of the state with low rates of COVID-19 infection to prioritize face-to-face instruction for those who are most likely to struggle with remote learning: elementary schoolers and those with disabilities. 

In circumstances where in-person school is offered, families will make their own decisions about whether to send children or keep them home. Here are a few tools families might use to prepare for the school year:

  1. Is the rate of infection in the community going down?  
  2. Does the community have a clear protocol for testing and contact tracing?  
  3. Does the school provide a clear protocol for what to do if/when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19? 

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. The final section of this article includes a sample letter for requesting a no-cost evaluation from the school district. PAVE provides an article with more detail: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

Rights are upheld during COVID pandemic

No rights are waived during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and families can collaborate to determine what data is needed and how to be creative about collecting data if person-to-person contact needs to be limited or avoided for health and safety reasons. An agency called Presence Learning is among those offering teletherapy training and support for special education teams during COVID-19.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides guidance to schools in Washington, where local districts establish and regulate policy. OSPI on July 10, 2020, issued an updated Question and Answer document about special education services delivery during the pandemic, including this statement (page 19):

“OSPI does not support unilateral district decisions to delay all meetings during COVID-19. IEPs and evaluations that were delayed due to COVID-19 should be prioritized for timely completion during summer and/or fall 2020 and follow those decisions with a prior written notice to the parent.”

Request evaluation formally, in writing

State-specific deadlines apply when a school district receives a formal request to evaluate a student. In Washington, evaluation deadlines are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-03005). In short, a school district has 25 school days to respond to a request, 35 school days to complete an evaluation, and 30 calendar days to write and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student.

Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for an evaluation to begin. How signatures are provided during the health emergency can be discussed to avoid slowing the process.

Make a special education referral in writing. This is important because:

  1. There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
  2. The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
  3. The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.

The school district is required to collect and consider school, medical and other records provided by the district and/or the family. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.

If the family wishes, letters about diagnoses, concerns, and recommendations from outside providers may be attached to the evaluation request. The district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations.

Prior Written Notice (PWN), IDEA, FAPE, and Child Find

After receiving an evaluation request letter and supporting documents, the district is required to respond formally, through a Prior Written Notice (PWN), within 25 school days. A PWN is a legal requirement any time there is a proposal to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a student through a special education process. These provisions are from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.

A PWN is required if the school district agrees or refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the student. A PWN is also required any time there is a change or a refusal to change any aspect of how the district provides Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student with a disability.

The right to FAPE is federally protected by the IDEA. A non-discriminatory evaluation process is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections apply whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts. Note that another foundational principle of the IDEA is parent/student participation in special education process. The IDEA protections cover the decision process about whether to evaluate.

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

Please note that a request for special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article about LRE provides more information: Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Encourages Inclusion.

General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that because of the child’s circumstances and capacities, FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

If a student is evaluated and determined ineligible for IEP services, the family has a right to appeal the decisions and/or to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The rights are similar if the district refuses to conduct an initial evaluation. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request.

Family caregivers also can work with the school to develop a Section 504 plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing, etc.). Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout the lifespan. See PAVE’s article for more detail about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Sample letter for a special education referral

Below is a sample letter that family caregivers can use when writing a request for an educational evaluation:

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title):

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my (son/daughter), NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of [his/her] struggles with [brief sentence that summarizes the bullet points listed below].

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me. My reasons for requesting this evaluation are: (be as specific as you can).

  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.

My [son/daughter] has been medically diagnosed with [DIAGNOSIS, if available…Or, you might write: My son is awaiting a medical evaluation for … note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation].

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [name of child] is tested so that I might share information and history. I will also expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)

You can email this letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.