Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities who have not been fully served during years of the COVID-19 pandemic may have the right to additional school-based services to help them get back on track. These additional services may be called Recovery or Compensatory Services.
  • Read on for information, including guidance from the federal government. A family-friendly, printable handout from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a place to begin.
  • Whether a student with disabilities is served through a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), decisions about Recovery/Compensatory Services are made by a collaborative team that includes family participants.
  • Federal money is available to help schools provide additional services to students with disabilities.
  • Section 504 and IEP teams are responsible to make collaborative, student-centered decisions about Compensatory Services: Schools may not take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Full Article

Schools, students, and families face a unique set of challenges as doors reopen with ongoing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Students with disabilities may have been impacted more than their non-disabled peers and may be eligible for additional services to help them get back on track with their learning and development.

Additional services may be called Recovery Services or Compensatory Services. Under either name, schools are responsible for working with families to determine where there are learning gaps and how to ensure students get the support and services they need to make appropriate progress in all areas of their education, including areas related to student well-being and social emotional learning (SEL).

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provides a family-friendly, printable 4-page handout that explains a student’s right to Compensatory Services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law protects the civil rights of all students with disabilities, including those with Section 504 Plans and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). All students with disabilities that significantly impact how they access school have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

FAPE right are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA is the federal law that provides a grant entitlement for students who receive special education through an IEP.

Section 504 and the IDEA require that students with known or suspected disabilities be evaluated to determine eligibility for services and to gather data for an individualized plan or program. Students who were not identified for services because of COVID-related logistics may be among those who are entitled to additional services.

Recovery/Compensatory Services are based on a student’s right to FAPE

Compensatory Services are sometimes awarded as the result of a complaint investigation but do not have to be linked to dispute resolution: Schools and families can design a plan for these services in ways that are collaborative and not adversarial. Whether a student is entitled to Recovery/Compensatory Services is a question related to FAPE rights and not a question of whether the school tried in good faith to serve the student, according to OCR.

OCR states that “Schools must convene a group of persons knowledgeable about the student to make an individualized determination of whether a student’s current services should be changed due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the impact of loss of services on skills, mental health and trauma concerns, or the physical health effects of long COVID (post-COVID conditions).”

OCR also includes these statements in its handout for families:

  • “Compensatory Services are required to remedy any educational or other deficits that result from the student with a disability not receiving the evaluations or services to which they were entitled.
  • “For example, a school may need to provide Compensatory Services for a student who did not receive physical therapy during school closures or for a student who did not receive a timely evaluation.
  • “Providing Compensatory Services to a student does not draw into question a school’s good faith efforts during these difficult circumstances. It is a remedy that recognizes the reality that students experience injury when they do not receive appropriate and timely initial evaluations, re-evaluations, or services, including the services that the school had previously determined they were entitled to, regardless of the reason.”

Families participate in decision-making

Whether a student with disabilities is served through a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), decisions about Compensatory Services are made by a collaborative team that includes family participants and anyone else with knowledge of the student, including (but not limited to) school nurses, teachers, counselors, psychologists, school administrators, social workers, doctors and/or other providers within or outside of school. Note that IEP teams have specific requirements about who must attend meetings unless a parent signs consent for an absence (WAC 392-172A-03095).

OCR lists factors for a team of people knowledgeable about a student to consider when making decisions about Compensatory Services:

  • The frequency and duration of missed instruction and related services
  • Whether special education and/or related services that were provided during the pandemic were appropriate based on the student’s individual needs
  • A student’s present level of performance
  • Previous [pre-pandemic] rates of progress
  • Results of updated evaluations
  • Whether evaluations were delayed
  • Any other relevant information

OCR investigates complaints and impacted change in Los Angeles

Under Section 504, if a parent or guardian believes that their child has not received a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) or has been denied equitable access to educational opportunities, they may seek a hearing under the school’s Section 504 Due Process procedures or file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights.

OCR complaints can also be filed at the state level; the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about civil rights complaint options in Washington State.

OCR investigated the Los Angeles Unified school district and found infractions related to Compensatory Services. In a document describing OCR’s resolution with Los Angeles schools, there is a list of what the schools did wrong. For example, OCR found that during remote learning, the district:

  • Limited the services provided to students with disabilities based on considerations other than individual educational needs
  • Failed to accurately or sufficiently track services provided to students with disabilities
  • Directed district service providers to include attempts to communicate with students and parents—including emails and phone calls—as the provision of services, documenting such on students’ service records
  • Informed staff that the district was not responsible for providing Compensatory education to students with disabilities who did not receive FAPE during the COVID-19 school closure period because the district was not at fault for the closure
  • Failed to develop and implement a plan adequate to remedy the instances in which students with disabilities were not provided a FAPE during remote learning

The Los Angeles district agreed to resolve these violations by creating and implementing a comprehensive plan to address the Compensatory education needs of students with disabilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guidance from OSERS

The federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) included guidance related to Compensatory services as part of its Return to School Roadmap, published September 30, 2021. Included is a question (D-6) about when Compensatory Services may be necessary and this multi-part answer:

“A child’s IEP Team may determine that compensatory services are necessary to mitigate the impact of disruptions and delays in providing appropriate services to the child. Some examples of situations that might require consideration of whether, and what, Compensatory Services are necessary include:

  1. If the initial evaluation, eligibility determination, and identification, development and implementation of the IEP for an eligible child were delayed
  2. If the special education and related services that were provided during the pandemic through virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction were not appropriate to meet the child’s needs
  3. If some or all of the child’s IEP could not be implemented using the methods of service delivery available during the pandemic (for example, if the physical therapy and behavioral intervention strategies included in the child’s IEP could not be provided through virtual means)
  4. If meaningful services to facilitate the transition from secondary school to activities such as postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation were not provided due to the pandemic

OSERS goes on to say: “These examples are not meant to be exhaustive and are provided to illustrate various situations that could require consideration of whether, and to what extent, Compensatory Services are needed to address the child’s needs and mitigate the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Government money is available to fund additional special education services

Federal money is available to help schools provide additional services to students with disabilities, including students who may be aging out of IEP services at 21 but have not yet earned a diploma or accessed all the transition services they need to be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living. See PAVE’s article, Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.

The US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in December published a resource focused on allowable uses of funding from various sources, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund (GEER) and the American Rescue Plan. The FAQ specifically highlights:

  1. Providing educational and related services under Section 504, including, but not limited to, providing [Compensatory Services] to students with disabilities… to make up for any skills that might have been lost if it is individually determined that the student was unable to receive a FAPE as a result of school closure or other COVID disruption
  2. Supporting students with disabilities under the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act/federal special education law], including by eliminating evaluation backlogs and providing support and direct services, such as technical assistance, personnel preparation, and professional development and training

School districts are required to incorporate stakeholder input into their plans for use of federal funds. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from Washington’s State Educational Agency/OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

For additional state information related to the pandemic, and to access content in languages other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

IEP teams also can discuss ESY

The fall return to school is a good time for IEP teams to consider whether a student experienced learning losses during summer break. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, the IEP team can discuss whether the student might need Extended School Year (ESY), typically provided next summer. ESY is a unique process for students with IEPs, and ESY services are determined based on a specific discussion about regression and recoupment. To better understand those terms and how ESY is determined, see PAVE’s article: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.

IEP teams can discuss Recovery Services, Compensatory Services, and Extended School Year in determining what a student may need to recover learning that was unavailable or inaccessible due to the pandemic or a student’s unique circumstances.

Checklist to get ready to talk about additional services

  • Note whether the student is due for an educational evaluation, required every three years. Family can request a new evaluation any time there are concerns that information about the student is outdated or inaccurate.
  • Read each IEP goal carefully. Goals are written to establish whether a teacher’s Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is effectively helping a child learn a needed skill or concept.
  • Consider whether there are questions about how instruction is specifically designed to meet a need or teach a skill, so the learning is accessible to the student.
  • Reach out to the IEP team case manager or to individual teachers/service providers to request documentation about progress made toward each IEP goal.
  • If progress wasn’t monitored, make a note to discuss this lack of progress monitoring with the IEP team.
  • Write down and prepare to share family/student observations about what worked or didn’t work during alternative school delivery during the pandemic. Reflect on this question: Was the learning accessible?
  • Request an IEP team meeting within a time frame that makes sense. Some teams will want to meet before the school year begins, while others may wait until the school year is underway or until an annual review date later in the school year.
  • Consider inviting district special education staff into the meeting if additional expertise or problem-solving support is needed.
  • At the meeting, ask for family/student concerns to be included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), a required document generated each time an official IEP team meets to discuss a student’s program and services.
  • Prepare to discuss transportation needs for access to Compensatory/Recovery Services. Transportation options may include district transportation; regional, shared agreements; private transportation; or parent reimbursement for travel costs. Transportation is part of FAPE delivery.
  • For students near the end of high school or who graduated or turned 21 during the pandemic without achieving or receiving everything that was expected, Transition Recovery Services may be available. See PAVE’s article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.
  • Consider a student’s strengths and how Recovery Services build on those strengths to support student resilience and well-being. Will the services instill a sense of pride, belonging, and accomplishment? Ensure that the student’s emotional well-being is honored and that the extra help does not feel like punishment.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help with questions about school-based services. For questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services, PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides assistance. Click Get Help from our home page at wapave.org to request individualized support.

Here’s a resource with a video training and links to some documents included in this article and more: Lessons from the Field – Providing Required Compensatory Services That Help Students with Disabilities in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education spaces and curriculum are LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated room?

This conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

A tool to support inclusion

The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

The resource includes a variety of tools and recommendations for how school and family teams can approach their meetings and conversations to support the creation and provision of a program that recognizes:

  • Each child is a general education student. 
  • The general education curriculum and routines and the Individual Education Program (IEP) comprise a student’s full educational program.
  • the IEP for a student qualifying for special education services is not the student’s curriculum.

Keep in mind that IEP teams are required to include staff from general education and special education (WAC 392-172A-03095). All team members are required for formal meetings unless the family signs consent for those absences. Here’s a key statement from the TIES Center resource:

“The IEP is intended to support a student’s progress in general education curriculum and routines, as well as other essential skills that support a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other community environments.  A comprehensive inclusive education program based upon these principles is important because without that focus, a student’s learning opportunities and school and post-school outcomes are diminished. In order to create an effective comprehensive inclusive education program, collaboration between general educators, special educators, and families is needed.”

Mental Health Education and Support at School can be Critical

A Brief Overview

  • Alarming statistics indicate the pandemic worsened many behavioral health outcomes for young people. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis.
  • President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet about the nation’s mental health crisis on March 1, 2022, as part of his State of the Union message. This article includes some of what the president shared about youth impacts.
  • Washington State’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirms that children and youth are struggling to maintain well-being.
  • These outcomes make adolescence a critical time for mental health promotion, early identification and intervention. Read on for information and resources.
  • The emotional well-being of students may be served through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which provide a structure for schools to provide education and supports related to student well-being schoolwide.
  • Students with high levels of need may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Full Article

Alarming statistics indicate that children and young people are in crisis. Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation for children’s mental health on March 14, 2021. Data from Washington’s 2021 Healthy Youth Survey confirm the distressing trends:

Seven out of ten students in tenth grade report feeling nervous, anxious, on edge, or cannot stop worrying. Eight percent said they tried suicide within the past year. Almost 40 percent said their feelings were disturbing enough to interrupt their regular activities, and more than 10 percent of students said they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their feelings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about half of young people who need behavioral health services get them.

According to the 2021 statewide survey, students with disabilities struggle more than most. Also over-represented are girls, students from lower income households, and students whose gender or sexuality is non-binary. Non-binary refers to more than two things; it’s a term often used when discussing people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, or questioning (LGBTQ+). LGBTQ+ youth can seek crisis help and more from The Trevor Project.

“Reports of our children suffering with mental health issues are a worrisome public health concern,” said Umair A. Shah, MD, MPH, Washington’s Secretary of Health. “Mental health is a part of our children’s overall health and well-being. It is imperative that we all continue to work together to fully support the whole child by providing information and access to behavioral health resources to youth and the trusted adults in their lives.”

Concerns are nationwide. On March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden issued a Fact Sheet stating that grief, trauma, and physical isolation during the past two years have driven Americans to a breaking point:

“Our youth have been particularly impacted as losses from COVID and disruptions in routines and relationships have led to increased social isolation, anxiety, and learning loss.  More than half of parents express concern over their children’s mental well-being. An early study has found that students are about five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, compared with students prior to the pandemic.

“In 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40 percent from 2009. Emergency department visits for attempted suicide have risen 51 percent among adolescent girls.”

Mental Health support to students is a statewide priority

Recognizing the unmet needs, Washington State’s 2022 legislature passed a variety of bills to increase support to children and youth with behavioral health conditions. Here are a few examples:

  • HB 1664: Provides funding and incentives for schools to increase numbers of staff who provide physical, social, and emotional support to students. Schools are responsible to report to the state how these funds were used for hiring staff that directly support students and not something else.
  • HB 1800: Requires Health Care Authority (HCA) to build and maintain a website (“parent portal”) to help families seek out behavioral health services. Also supports growth and training requirements for behavioral health ombuds serving youth through the Office of Behavioral Health Consumer Advocacy.
  • HB 1834: Establishes a student absence from school for mental health reasons as an excused absence.
  • HB 1890: Creates an advisory group under the Children and Youth Behavioral Health Work Group (CYBHWG) to build a strategic plan for children, youth transitioning to adulthood, and their caregivers. Also establishes a $200/day stipend (up to 6 meetings per year) for members of the CYBHWG with lived experience who are not attending in a paid professional capacity.

TIP: Family caregivers can get involved in advocacy work!

Here’s another TIP: Families can ask their school who is on site to support students with their mental health needs. Some school districts seek support from an Educational Service District (ESD) to meet student behavioral health needs, so families can also ask whether ESD supports are available. Some ESDs are licensed as behavioral health providers—just ask.

What is MTSS, and why learn this acronym to ask the school about it?

A priority for agencies involved in statewide work is implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Through MTSS, schools support well-being for all students and offer higher levels of support based on student need. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is key to MTSS, which creates a structure for positive behavioral supports and trauma-informed interventions.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state educational agency for Washington schools. In its 2021 budget, OSPI prioritized MTSS as part of a plan to Empower all Schools to Support the Whole Child. In January, 2021, OSPI was awarded a five-year, $5.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education help districts implement MTSS. As a local control state, Washington districts determine their own specific policies and procedures.

TIP: Families can ask school and district staff to describe their MTSS work and how students are receiving support through the various levels/tiers.

Special Education is one pathway for more help

Students may access mental health support through the special education system. Emotional Disturbance is a federal category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Appropriate support can be especially critical for these students: According to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), students eligible for school-based services under the ED category are twice as likely to drop out of high school before graduating.

How a student is supported in their life planning could have an impact. PAVE provides a toolkit of information about how to support a student in their preparations for graduation and beyond: School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work.

Note that a student with a mental health condition might qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the category of Other Health Impairment (OHI), which captures needs related to various medical diagnoses. Other categories that often overlap with behavioral health are Autism and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). IEP eligibility categories are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035).

In Washington State, the ED category is referred to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). If the student’s behavioral health is impaired to a degree that the student is struggling to access school, and the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), then the student may be eligible for an IEP. Keep in mind that academic subjects are only a part of learning in school: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is part of the core curriculum. 

An educational evaluation determines whether a student has a disability that significantly impacts access to school and whether Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and related services are needed for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of a student eligible for special education services. An IEP team determines how FAPE/educational services are provided to an individual student.

Behavioral health counseling can be part of an IEP

Counseling can be written into an IEP as a related service. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. School districts can receive reimbursement for most of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP. The Health Care Authority provides information about school-based health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

A student with a mental health condition who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might be eligible for a Section 504 Plan. A disability that impairs a major life activity triggers Section 504 protections, which include the right to appropriate and individualized accommodations at school. Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a Civil Rights law that protects against disability discrimination. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are protected by Section 504 rights.

Behavioral Health encompasses a wide range of disability conditions, including those related to substance use disorder, that impact a person’s ability to manage behavior. Sometimes students with behavioral health disabilities bump into disciplinary issues at school. Students with identified disabilities have protections in the disciplinary process: PAVE provides a detailed article about student and family rights related to school discipline.

Placement options for students who struggle with behavior

IEP teams determine the program and placement for a student. In accordance with federal law (IDEA), students have a right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. That means educational services and supports are designed to help students access their general education classroom and curriculum first. If the student is unable to make meaningful progress there because of their individual circumstances and disability condition, then the IEP team considers more restrictive placement options. See PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

If general education is not working, the IEP team is responsible to consider all placement options to find the right fit. There is not a requirement to rule out every “less restrictive” option before choosing a placement that the team agrees will best serve the student’s needs.

Sometimes the IEP team, which includes family, will determine that in order to receive FAPE a student needs to be placed in a Day Treatment or Residential school. OSPI maintains a list of Non-Public Agencies that districts might pay to support the educational needs of a student. Districts may also consider schools that are not listed. Washington State has almost no residential options for students. Schools almost always send students to other states when residential placement is needed.

On May 23, 2022, a Washington affiliate of National Public Radio (KUOW) provided a report about the lack of residential programs in the state and the challenges for families whose students go out of state for residential education: Washington is sending youth in crisis to out-of-state boarding schools; taxpayers pick up the tab.

Residential placement may be necessary because educational needs cannot be served unless medical needs are fully supported. School districts may be responsible in those situations to pay for a residential placement. A precedent-setting court ruling in 2017 was Edmonds v. A.T. The parents of a student with behavioral disabilities filed due process against the Edmonds School District for reimbursement of residential education. The administrative law judge ruled that the district must pay for the residential services because “students cannot be separated from their disabilities.”

Strategies and safety measures for families and teachers

The Healthy Youth Survey is conducted every other year and was delayed from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic. Over the years, results are shared along with tips for families and schools. Here are a few considerations built from various data points within the survey:

Hopeful students:

  • Are more interested in schoolwork: Is there a way to make every day at school more connected to what a child cares about?
  • See people who can help: Who are the adults at school that a student can trust and go to for encouragement or guidance?
  • Believe that school is relevant to life: Who is helping the student connect what they are learning now to who they want to become?
  • Are academically successful: Are supports in place to provide adequate help so the student can succeed in learning? Evidence-based instructional strategies are key when students struggle in reading, writing, or math because of learning disabilities, for example.

TIP: Make sure these four topics are part of a school/family discussion when a student is struggling with emotional well-being or behavior that may be impacted by hopelessness.

A 2018 handout includes tips for parents and other adults who support teens who feel anxious or depressed:

  • Bond with them: Unconditional love includes clear statements that you value them, and your actions show you want to stay involved in their lives.
  • Talk with teens about their feelings and show you care. Listen to their point of view. Suicidal thinking often comes from a wish to end psychological pain.
  • Help teens learn effective coping strategies and resiliency skills to deal with stress, expectations of others, relationship problems, and challenging life events.
  • Have an evening as a family where everyone creates their own mental health safety plan.
  • Learn about warning signs and where to get help
  • Ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Don’t be afraid that talking about it will give them the idea. If you’ve observed any warning signs, chances are they’re already thinking about it.
  • If you own a firearm, keep it secured where a teen could not access it.
  • Lock up medications children shouldn’t have access to.

A press for school-based services and mental health literacy

Advocacy for direct school-based mental health services and education about mental health topics comes from the University of Washington’s SMART Center. SMART stands for School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training. The SMART center in 2020 provided a report: The Case for School Mental Health. The document includes state and national data that strongly indicate school-based behavioral health services are effective:

“Increased access to mental health services and supports in schools is vital to improving the physical and psychological safety of our students and schools, as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills. Availability of comprehensive school mental health promotes a school culture in which students feel safe to report safety concerns, which is proven to be among the most effective school safety strategies.”

The SMART Center in partnership with the non-profit Chad’s Legacy Project in 2021 established an online Student/Youth Mental Health Literacy Library. Intended for staff at middle and high schools, the library provides resources to help schools choose curricula for mental health education on topics that include Social Emotional Learning, Substance Use Disorder, and Suicide Prevention.

Goals of mental health literacy are:

  • Understanding how to foster and maintain good mental health
  • Understanding mental disorders and their treatments
  • Decreasing Stigma
  • Understanding how to seek help effectively for self and others

TIP: Families can direct their schools to this resource to support development or growth of a mental health education program.

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): After July 16, 2022, call 988
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQ) (1-866-488-7386)
  • The Washington Recovery Help Line (1-866-789-1511)
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide

Further information on mental health and suicide:  

Family Support

  • PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.
  • A Facebook group called Healthy Minds Healthy Futures provides a place to connect with other families.
  • Family caregivers can request support and training from COPE (Center of Parent Excellence), which offers support group meetings and direct help from lead parent support specialists as part of a statewide program called A Common Voice.
  • Washington State Community Connectors (WSCC) sponsors an annual family training weekend, manages an SUD Family Navigator training, and offers ways for families to share their experiences and support one another. With passage of HB 1800 in 2022, WSCC is working with the Health Care Authority to build a statewide website to help families navigate behavioral health services.
  • Family, Youth, and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) is a statewide hub for family networking and emotional support. Some regions have distinct groups for young people.

Summer Reading Tips for Families

A Brief Overview

  • Learning Heroes provides help to figure out a child’s reading level, useful when asking for summer reading recommendations from a teacher or librarian.
  • Any format that captures a child’s imagination and makes them enjoy reading is valuable. Consider graphic novels, audio books, read aloud online videos, or e-readers in addition to traditional books.
  • Consider rewards and prizes for reading achievements. The local library might have a summer program. Read on for ideas.
  • Some students will have school-based services over the summer through Extended School Year (ESY), Recovery Services (additional services due to pandemic impacts), or something else. See PAVE’s article: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.
  • PAVE provides a video and an article about supporting students with specific learning disabilities related to literacy.

Full Article

Summer days offer time to focus on play, creativity, and family fun. If most days also include time for reading, children will better maintain skills they’ve been working on during the school year. Here are tips for families to keep kids engaged in reading.

Check your child’s reading level

If possible, ask a teacher for information about the child’s reading level before school’s out. This information will help you use any reading guides provided by the school or library. Here’s another option: Learning Heroes provides help to figure out a child’s reading level.

Follow your child’s lead

Ask a librarian to show you where to find books in your child’s general reading level, then turn your child loose to explore. Children will often gravitate to books that look interesting and accessible.

Don’t worry if the child wants to explore a book that seems too easy or too hard. Keep in mind that the point is to keep the child interested in reading. Sometimes children need something easy to keep it fun, and sometimes the subject of a harder book makes it more fascinating.  

Some children choose comic books or books with diagrams, which are rarely included on teacher lists but can keep kids going to the library. Consider whether guilt-free reading options might reduce battles and keep eyes engaged on the page. Any format that captures a child’s imagination and makes them enjoy reading is valuable. Consider graphic novels, audio books, read aloud online videos, or e-readers in addition to traditional books.

Pull words from the page

Some children prefer or need books that are more interactive. Here are some options:

  • A read-aloud, with an adult or child doing the reading
  • Read together and share questions and answers along the way
  • Act out a book
  • Participate in a read-a-thon
  • Check out audio books
  • Seek applications and video programs that show words and provide narration

An agency called Bookshare provides e-books for children with learning disabilities, vision problems, or conditions such as cerebral palsy.  The agency provides alternative reading options, such as braille, audiobooks, large print books, and more.

Make reading part of everyday activities

Children learn reading habits from their family, and when adults show they love to read children will often model that behavior.

Read during everyday activities. Notice and read signs and billboards while you travel around town. Ask children to read the recipe while they help prepare a meal. They can help read a text message, an email, or a letter that came in the mail. Turn on the television’s closed caption feature so a favorite show includes the words to read and follow along.

Understand reading milestones

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance for teachers and families through Early Literacy Pathways. The downloadable booklet provides a chart of developmental milestones linked to literacy. An alternative place to get this type of information is from Understood.org: Reading skills at different ages.

Resource locations for summer reading

Washington’s Secretary of State provides a website page with information about a statewide Summer Reading Program. Included is a tool to find your local library.

Ask the teacher or school district what they offer over summer. Many schools partner with local organizations or offer school-supported access to digital learning applications, such as

The Barnes & Noble summer reading program is for all ages and allows any child to pick a free book from a predetermined list of books after completing the program. Visit the store to ask for a journal to track summer reading.

Scholastic Summer Challenge (Scholastic.com) has a summer reading challenge called “Readapalooza.” Kids log their reading minutes, unlock badges, and earn rewards.

Search locally online for “summer reading [your city]” or  “summer reading program near me” because many local or state-specific businesses and restaurants host summer reading programs.

Happy reading this summer and always!

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’

A Brief Overview

  • If the school denies a request for a special education evaluation or does an evaluation and determines a student is ineligible for services, families have options. Read on for information about some possible next steps.
  • When there is a dispute about a district’s evaluation, one option is to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from a provider outside of the school district. This article includes a sample letter to help with that process.
  • Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families navigating educational services. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Full Article

Parents have a variety of choices if the school denies a request to evaluate a student for special education or if the school does an evaluation and finds the student ineligible for services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Here are some options to consider.

Is disability a factor?

A student qualifies for IEP services when three prongs of eligibility are met through evaluation:

  1. A disability is present.
  2. The disability condition causes significant adverse educational impact.
  3. The student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, such as speech, occupational, physical or another therapy to meet an educational need. 

Keep in mind that a student does not need to meet all three prongs in order to be evaluated. In accordance with the Child Find Mandate, the school district must evaluate a child if there is a known or suspected disability that may have significant impact on learning. The findings of evaluation consider the three prongs listed above.

When considering whether disability is impacting educational access and outcomes, it’s helpful to review the eligibility categories outlined by federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • Autism
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

In Washington State, children through age 9 may be eligible for services under the category of Developmental Delay. The Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035) provide detail about eligibility in each category.

Keep in mind that the educational impact of a disability can be assessed with or without a formal diagnosis from a medical provider.

Was your request in writing?

Referrals for special education evaluation are best made in writing. If an initial request was made and denied verbally, start again with a formal letter sent through email, certified mail or in person. PAVE provides a letter template and more information for evaluation requests in an article: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Address the letter to a district special education director or program coordinator, and cc an administrator at the student’s school. Make sure to include the student’s full name and birthdate, a clear statement of request for evaluation in all areas of suspected disability, and details about the concerns. If relevant, attach letters from doctors, therapists or other providers who support the request. The letter should include complete contact information and a statement that parent is prepared to sign consent for the evaluation to begin.

Ask for the decision in writing

The school is required to respond through a formal letter, called Prior Written Notice (PWN), to explain its rationale for moving forward with an evaluation or denying the request. If the school’s rationale for denial is confusing or incomplete, ask for detail in writing.

School evaluators cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. Impacts of COVID-19 delayed some evaluations in spring 2020, but the pandemic is not an explanation for evaluation denial.

Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because they want to try different instructional methods. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although it might be useful for the school to research its teaching methods, this cannot be the basis for refusing to evaluate a student with a known or suspected disability.

Request a meeting

Discussing a student’s difficulties in a meeting, in-person or virtually, can help school staff understand a parent’s level of concern. A district representative, such as a director of special education, can provide insight about the process and additional options. Parents can invite a support person to take notes and help track the conversation.

Is a Section 504 Plan appropriate?

If a student has a known disability, with some educational impacts, but there is no documented need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, the student might qualify for accommodations provided through a Section 504 Plan.

Section 504, which is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A formal evaluation is helpful but not required, and parent involvement is best practice. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

If the answer to these two questions is yes, the school can develop a plan to support the student within the general education setting. Assistive technology and modifications to the curriculum can be part of the plan, which includes individualized accommodations to ensure the student is able to access school in ways that are equitable. PAVE provides an article with more information about Section 504.

File a complaint and/or get outside help

Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions. Mediation, Citizen Complaint, and Due Process are options for dispute resolution in special education. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides assistance to navigate these processes through a Special Education Parent Liaison.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families in their communication with schools. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Another option for support with family/school collaborations is the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds.

Request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)  

If family caregivers disagree with a district’s evaluation result, the family can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). An IEE can offer additional information that may support the need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services.

If the school district denies a request for an IEE at public expense, the district must initiate a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its evaluation was appropriate.

When an IEE request is accepted, the school district provides a list of independent evaluators. Parents have discretion to call each one or to seek an alternative evaluator before choosing who will evaluate the student. The school must consider the results of the IEE when deciding whether the student qualifies for special education programming.

Sample letter to request an IEE

Note: You can email the IEE request 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.

Dear [recipient can be special education district staff and/or school administrators]:

I am requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for my (son/daughter), NAME (BD: 00-00-0000). Please provide me with information about outside agencies in our area that can provide this evaluation.

The school conducted an evaluation [date range of evaluation] to determine whether [child’s name] is eligible for special education programming. I disagree with the results of that evaluation for the following reasons: (be as specific as you can; one reason may be that you don’t believe that all areas of suspected disability were appropriately evaluated.)

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

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters supporting your request]. Please note that [highlight any particularly important recommendations from those attached documents].

I understand that the school can provide this IEE at no cost to me. I also understand that the school may initiate a due process hearing if denying my request. Upon request, I can provide more detail about my objections to the school’s evaluation.

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development and review of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings regarding the identification, evaluation, provision of services, placement, or decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

I understand that evaluations require my written permission, 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 and full contact information]Please Note: It is the policy of PAVE to provide support, information, and training for families, professionals, and interested others on a number of topics. In no way do these activities constitute providing legal advice. PAVE is not a legal firm or a legal services agency.

Tips for Communicating as a Member of the IEP Team

A Brief Overview

  • When families and schools meet to discuss a student’s special education program, they can find Common Ground by remembering that everyone wants the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
  • Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
  • Read on for tips about getting ready for a collaborative meeting.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Full Article

Whether on Zoom or around a conference table, sitting down with a team of professionals can feel intimidating to families. When a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is on the agenda, emotions can overtake a meeting. Getting defensive or angry does not usually help, however. This article provides tools for staying organized, open minded, and on topic to improve the work of meetings—and student outcomes.

A basic special education vocabulary boosts empowerment, and empowered families generally feel more confident at their meetings. Here is a key word to know:

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE. That right is protected by federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To meet the standard of FAPE, special education services are accessible to the student. Accessible means the services work as designed to enable progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

A student receiving FAPE with appropriate, accessible services demonstrates steady progression toward mastery of skills. Those skills are being taught with specially designed instruction (SDI). As skills are learned, progress is measured through goal tracking. Meaningful progress indicates that the student is accessing FAPE.

Mastery can enable a sense of belonging. When the student feels capable, connected, and responsible within the school community, things generally run more smoothly for everyone.

In other words, FAPE is the result when everyone works together for the benefit of the student and meaningful learning happens. When a student is successful, the IEP team has done its job well and everyone can celebrate!

Here is a more formal way to talk about FAPE: Under the IDEA, FAPE requires an IEP reasonably calculated to provide progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

FAPE provides a place to begin

When families and schools meet to talk about a child’s services, everyone can begin with FAPE as the overarching goal. FAPE provides Common Ground for the discussion. Everyone on the team wants FAPE:

  • The school district is required by law to provide FAPE to IEP-eligible students.
  • Teachers are happy when their students are successful.
  • The family wants a child to learn in a meaningful way.
  • The student wants to feel confident and proud.

Common Ground is not always where meetings begin

Problems arise in meetings when school staff and/or family members start the conversation far from Common Ground. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) has designed a curriculum to support families and schools in their discussions. Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.

To avoid a meeting that feels like a fight, the parent may want to start the meeting with some general comments to help school staff better understand the student and to gently remind the team that years of parenting have led to some expertise about a specific child.

For example, an IEP or a behavior plan might say that a student is “defiant” or “refusing” to do work. Those types of statements can make a parent feel defensive. Showing up angry probably will not lead to a productive meeting. Instead, a parent may come to the meeting prepared to explain that the student lacks confidence and would rather appear defiant than “stupid.” Maybe the parent has been able to talk to the student about their frustrations and can bring statements or requests directly from the student.

Another way to find common ground is to prepare open-ended questions and bring those to the table first, before offering suggestions or requests. For example, if a parent shows up and demands a 1:1 right at the start of the meeting, the conversation might quickly devolve into an argument about resource problems. If a parent comes ready to talk about what is not working for the student and concerns for their child’s learning and well-being, there is an opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving.

Climb mountains as a team

Firm predetermined “solutions” from any side can position school staff and family members far from collaboration, like the peeks of two mountains unable to ever meet in the middle.

Consider collaborative problem-solving as a project that starts at the intersecting bases of two mountains, on Common Ground. Shared expectations and assumptions are a good place to begin for an open-minded discussion. Here are a few conversation starters to consider:

  • According to these progress reports, the student is getting good at … How might we use that emerging skill to scaffold skill-building in this other area?
  • My student is not making as much progress as I expected in this area… Can we talk about strategies for improving progress?
  • This assignment, grade, or record shows that the student struggles to … Is there another approach to services or placement that we have not considered yet as a team?
  • I notice that this IEP goal is written to help the student “stop” doing an unwanted behavior. Can you help me understand the skill that is being taught, and can we rewrite the goal to focus on measuring progress toward the expected skill or behavior?
  • From what I see here (data/evidence/observations), this service is not working or is not accessible to the student. My theory about this is… Does anyone here have a different theory about what might be going on?

Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:

  • Trust is at the heart of positive working relationships.
  • Family members and educators can develop trust by showing personal regard, respect, transparency, and integrity. These may be particularly important for trust to grow among people of different cultures.
  • Blaming, bringing up the past repeatedly, minimizing another’s opinion, or rushing a conversation can create barriers to collaboration.
  • A neutral third party may be needed to resolve issues and rebuild relationships.

Prepare for the meeting

Request any documents that are going to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Review the documents in preparation for the meeting and mark down any notes for discussion. Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

Leave with an action plan

At the end of the meeting, review what has been decided and be sure to make notes about any action steps, deadlines, or assignments. Be sure to note:

  1. What is the action?
  2. When will it happen?
  3. Who is responsible?

Schedule a follow-up conversation or a plan to communicate about anything that is not firmly decided. After a formal meeting, the school sends parents a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to describe any changes being made to a student’s services and when those changes will take effect. Parents with their own notes about the action plan will better understand how to read the PWN and whether there are unresolved topics.

Procedural Safeguards provide additional options

If a meeting leaves too many issues unresolved, parents can review their procedural safeguards to make a choice about what to do next. A copy is offered by the school at all formal meetings, and parents can also request a copy any time. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Parents have the right to disagree with the school and to pursue resolution by:

The collaboration strategy being explained. Meet on common ground. A depiction of two mountains are shown, one represents family and the other mountain represents the school. Both family and school push against each other to form a smaller overlap triangle called FAPE - that represents the common ground.

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

A Brief Overview

  • 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 are still in place, without waivers. PAVE provides an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.
  • Students retain the right to access high-school transition and vocational rehabilitation services. PAVE provides an article: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.
  • 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.

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.”

Keep notes about student learning

Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to educational services. 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.”

IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can discuss whether Recovery Services are needed to make up for services not provided or accessible due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Documentation from families and schools will support conversations about what was needed and what was provided. Families can collect and share their own observations about progress toward goals and whether materials provided by the school have been accessible.

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 coronavirus pandemic, families with students of all ages and abilities are figuring out strategies for coping with the disruptions. This article may provide some help: How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe during the crisis.

PAVE provides ongoing 1:1 support. Fill out a Helpline Request online or call 800-572-7368. Language access services are available.

So you’re at College…What Next?

Navigating the Higher Education Environment When You Live With Disability

Research over the past 20 years indicates that a fairly high percentage of college students with disability choose not to disclose that disability to a college administration.  They are tired of “being labeled” or singled out because of their situation and simply want to participate in the same way as students without disability.  This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding their disability (pretty difficult to hide a mobility device or service animal), they’ve just “had it” with permissions, meetings, and forms.

At the same time, many students get onto campus wanting not to disclose, and discover that yes, they *do* have to jump through the hoops at Disability Services in order to access strategic supports.

[If you’ve already met with the disability/access services office at your campus, and provided documents to receive services and equipment, you can skip this next section]

If you’re just beginning the access process, this is what you have to do:

Be able to clearly explain your disability and your specific requirements for services and equipment. It’s better to ask for more than you might expect to get, but be aware of the possibility that if the school can’t provide a service or equipment and you absolutely need it, you and your family will have to bear the expense, or you will have to find a school where such services/equipment is available.

Make an appointment at Disability/Access Services

Fill out any forms requesting services and equipment (usually available online)

Make certain you have all required documentation.

Below is an example of typical required documentation.  It can vary from school to school, and you will find a similar list again, usually on the school’s website under “Disability/Access Services”.

“In order for a student to receive an educational accommodation due to the presence of a disability, documentation from a professional service provider must be obtained. Professional providers may include, but not necessarily be limited to, those identified below:

Disability Category         Professional Provider

ADD ADHD                        Psychologist/Psychiatrist

Emotional disability       Psychologist/Psychiatrist

Auditory disability          Certified Otologist, Audiologist

Visual disability               Ophthalmologist, Certified Optometrist

Learning disability          Psychologist, Neuropsychologist, Learning Disability Specialist

Physical disability           Medical Doctor, Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Surgeon, Doctor of Rehabilitation

Chronic health impairment         Medical Doctor, Medical Specialist

Documentation from a professional service provider must be in writing, must be current within three years, and must include the following when appropriate:

A description of the student’s disability and how he/she is affected educationally by the presence of the disabling condition.

Identification of any tests or assessments administered to the student.

For students identified as having a specific learning disability, the assessment must be specific to the student, comprehensive, and include:

Aptitude

Achievement

Assessment of the student’s information processing capabilities,

Raw data and interpretation of the data

Specific educational recommendations based on the data interpreted.

Effect on the student’s ability to complete a course of study.

Suggestions for educational accommodations that will provide equal access to programs, services, and activities…”

-Source: Tacoma Community College, Tacoma, WA at: http://www.tacomacc.edu/resourcesandservices/accessservices/forms/

What Happens After the Appointment with Disability Services?

After the appointment, you’ll get an official notification from the Disability/Access Services administration informing you of your eligibility for services, and if eligible, what services you can expect to receive.

You may have to place additional calls to Disability/Access Services to determine when services begin, where to pick up equipment, arrange meetings with note takers, etc.

At most schools, YOU are responsible for notifying each of your instructors (every semester!) of your requirements for accommodations. Hang on to that eligibility letter–better yet, make multiple copies to hand out to instructors.  Having known many college instructors, I suggest you don’t send this by email alone. Hard copy rules in this case.

Informing instructors about accommodations means giving plenty of notice for them to order alternatives to conventional textbooks. If you’re doing this at the beginning of a semester, expect delays getting the material. This sometimes happens even when you had your appointment with Disability/Access Services many months in advance of the semester. If so, you may have to negotiate with your instructor for extensions on assignments.

Make sure you understand the limits of what the school is providing for assistive technology. For instance, many schools limit the loan of portable screen-readers to specified uses or time frames. You may have to provide your own equipment or software outside those limits.

Some Disability/Access offices are one-stop shopping, and can set you up with tutors, any necessary remedial courses and on-campus health services (including mental/emotional health).  At other schools, it’s very fragmented, and YOU will have to find these services separately, even when they are related to your disability.

Most such services are available through departments labeled “Student Services”, “Student Success Services”, “Counseling”, “Health Services” and the like.  If you are unsure of where to find services, you can contact staff in an office usually labeled “Dean of Student Services”.  College Deans are top-level administrators who oversee a number of related departments.  Their staff are knowledgeable about all departments under that Dean’s authority.

Who to Talk with About Issues

What if you have issues with instructors not allowing or ignoring your accommodations?

Your first step should be to re-issue your eligibility letter to that instructor, following up by requesting the Disability/Access office to notify the instructor of your eligibility through their office. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, all schools accepting federal funds will have a Section 504 Coordinator (or similar title) on campus. This person is probably on staff in the Disability/Access Services office, wearing additional hats. Complaints regarding your access to materials, instruction, and class activities go to this person.

If you’re not using a Section 504 plan but still require accommodations, all schools accepting federal funds will also have an ADA Coordinator (or similar title). This person may or may not be located in the Disability/Access Services office but that office will be able to direct you to them.

[The ADA Coordinator is also the person to see when you have an unresolved issue around physical access on campus or with any program offered away from the main campus.]

Complaints about instructors *not* relating to your accommodations are usually addressed to the Dean of Academic Affairs (yes, another Dean), or the Chairperson of the academic department for that instructor.

In most cases, it’s appropriate to discuss any concerns with your instructor before escalating a concern or complaint up the line.

Navigating the Campus:

If your disability includes physical limitations you’re already aware of how many barriers exist to full participation in any environment. Many, many schools were built prior to ADA, and their facilities reflect lots of poor accessibility design. [I attended a school that only had accessible restrooms on every other floor, and in each case those restrooms were at the opposite end of the hallway from the elevators! At another school, I had classes in a building that underwent (planned) replacement of the only building elevator during the height of the semester].

If possible, move onto campus (or visit the campus) early for some “dry runs”. Acquire a campus map to figure out the quickest to get to classes, dining halls and sports facilities.

Make friends with the administrators working at Campus Police. (They’re the ones who assign parking spaces and they also know the best and quickest ways around grounds and buildings.)

It also doesn’t hurt to know the phone number for the folks who run the facilities. This department is sometimes called Physical Plant, Facilities, or Buildings and Grounds. They’re really useful when the accessible restroom is out of order, when the elevator breaks down, and when you want to know if certain areas are clear of snow and ice.

Lots of Fuss-Why Bother?

All this navigation of a college’s bureaucracy seems overwhelming, listed here all at once. Don’t get discouraged. I’ve listed these possibilities here so you can make notes for yourself and be prepared. With luck, you’ll never need to contact some of these offices or people. On the other hand, “entropy happens”—things sometimes go sour. Knowledge is power!