Health Information for Families as Schools Reopen During COVID Pandemic

As schools open for the 2021-22 school year, families have decisions to make about health and safety. This article provides information and resources to address some key questions:

  • What measures are schools required to take to keep children and staff safe?
  • What COVID precautions should our family consider?
  • What should we do if returning to in person school doesn’t feel safe for our family?
  • Will schools address children’s social and emotional well-being after everything that has happened?

This article provides information to address these questions and includes state and federal resources to support families in decision making.

Overall priorities at the state and national level include:

  1. Health and physical safety by following a layered approach with COVID protocols for masking and hygiene to the maximum practical extent
  2. Mental health and social emotional learning support for all students, with state and federal funds to enable schools to hire additional staff focused on student well-being
  3. Accelerated academics to help students recover from interrupted learning (See PAVE’s article on Recovery Services)

These priorities are listed in the US Department of Education’s Return to School Roadmap, which includes this guidance in its opening paragraphs:

“We must welcome families back in authentically, listen and seek to understand their concerns, and respond to their needs, so that all families feel comfortable sending their students to school this fall. As we start the 2021-2022 school year, schools and communities must address gaps that were exacerbated by the pandemic and build our education system back better than before.”

What measures are schools required to take to keep children and staff safe?

Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) issued a 13-page document on July 28, 2021, to detail requirements for the 2021-2022 school year. The state’s guidance mirrors recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Priority is to minimize virus transmission while maximizing in-person learning.

Families with questions or who need access to the DOH information in another format are encouraged to contact the COVID-19 Information hotline: 1-800-525-0127. Hours are 6 am-6 pm, with additional hours until 10 pm on Mondays. For interpretative services, press # when they answer and say your language. To request DOH information in another format, call 1-800-525-0127. Deaf or hard of hearing customers, please call 711 (Washington Relay) or email civil.rights@doh.wa.gov.

Here are key points from Washington’s DOH guidance:

  • Vaccination is recommended for anyone 12 and older, and schools must verify the vaccination status of staff and faculty as required by Labor and Industry. According to DOH, “Schools should promote vaccinations for eligible students, teachers, staff, and families.”
  • Face coverings are required for all students and staff indoors and during school transportation. Exemptions are made for “people with a medical condition, mental health condition, developmental or cognitive condition, or disability that prevents wearing a face covering.”
  • Physical distancing of three feet or more is recommended indoors as practical: “Physical distancing requirements should not prevent a school from offering full-time, in person learning to all students….”
  • Schools must maintain good ventilation: “Offer more outside time, open windows often, and adjust the HVAC system to allow the maximum amount of outside air to enter the program space and increase air filtration.”
  • Schools are tasked to teach and manage proper hygiene, including frequent handwashing and “respiratory etiquette” (cover coughs and sneezes/wash hands after blowing nose, etc.) to minimize viral spread: “Some students with disabilities might need assistance with handwashing and respiratory etiquette behaviors.”
  • Schools must clean and disinfect surfaces and spaces frequently, in accordance with guidance from the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Symptomatic students and staff are asked to stay home and seek a medical evaluation before returning to school.
  • Schools must ensure students and staff can access timely COVID testing.
  • Schools are recommended to screen students who are not fully vaccinated at least weekly when community transmission is at moderate or higher levels. In accordance with CDC guidance, the state is not recommending fully vaccinated people for routine screening. Additional testing is recommended for athletes, coaches, and others engaged in contact sports or activities such as singing, which generates aerosols from the mouth that can spread virus.
  • Isolation of ill individuals is required to be in a space reserved for first aid or a separated room with an open window or good ventilation: “If no appropriate indoor space is available and the child can be supervised and made comfortable, an outdoor setting is an acceptable emergency alternative if weather and privacy permitting.”
  • If a person tests positive for COVID, here’s when they can return to school:
    • 10 days since they first got sick (up to 20 days for severe illness or if immunocompromised)
    • 24 hours after fever is gone
    • Symptoms have improved

Students who need to stay home have educational rights

The CDC provides a Flow Chart to direct schools, students, and families about what to do if a student becomes ill at school.

Schools are asked to keep records about people who are exposed to others who are sick. If the person who was exposed to illness has not been vaccinated, they will need to stay home/quarantine themselves until it’s clear they aren’t getting sick. If the person exposed to COVID has been vaccinated or has recovered from a past COVID infection, they don’t have to quarantine if they aren’t sick. Schools are required to release information about COVID-19 cases to local public health officials as part of a case or outbreak investigation.

A student staying home sick has the right to educational access, including special education services that are accessible and support progress toward educational goals. According to DOH, “Schools must have a response and communication plan in place that includes communication with staff, families, their school district, and their local health jurisdiction. Schools should prepare for instructing students and their families who are excluded from school due to illness or quarantine in accordance with all federal and state laws.”

What COVID precautions should our family consider?

The CDC provides guidance for families for talking about COVID-19 and slowing its spread. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Reassure children that they are safe. Share how you deal with your stress, so they learn to cope from you. If a child is anxious, reduce exposure to pandemic topics in the media.
  • Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.
  • Provide information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Use the information in this article to share a few ideas about how school might have new rules for protecting everyone.
  • Seek trusted information about vaccines to make an informed decision about who in the family can and should be vaccinated. The CDC provides a three-minute video with overview information, and Family Voices of Washington provides an article with more detail to support decision making. To find a vaccination site in your area, go to COVIDWA.com or call 1-833-VAX-HELP (833-829-4357). Language assistance is available. You can also text your zip code to 438-829 for vaccine locations near you.
  • Teach everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Remind children to wash hands frequently and to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow.
  • Practice mask wearing and choose face coverings that will work all day at school. If appropriate, involve students in a plan to keep the face coverings clean and ready for each school day. If a child’s disability prevents mask wearing, talk about why that will be okay and prepare to share disability specific information with school staff. DOH provides guidance about mask wearing and exemptions in an Order from the Secretary of Health

What should we do if returning to in person school doesn’t feel safe for our family?

The U.S. Department of Education with the CDC presented at a Parent Town Hall on July 29, 2021.  During the virtual event, Department of Education staff responded to a question by a parent who wanted her child to keep learning from home for health and safety reasons. The parent was reminded that the department provides guidance and best practice strategies but does not regulate state educational agencies or local districts.

The advice was to ask for a meeting with school and/or district staff to discuss a plan for ongoing distance learning. If a workable plan isn’t developed, families are advised to contact their state educational agency (OSPI in Washington), local school board, or governor’s office. Note that Washington is a local control state, so individual districts are responsible to write their own policies and procedures within the limits of state and federal law.

No student rights are waived due to the pandemic, and students have levels of educational protections depending on their circumstances. Every child has the right to a free public education, through Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Students with disabilities have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is equitable, accessible and designed to meet their individualized needs. The right to FAPE is protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

If a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the IEP team is responsible to make decisions about the best placement for a student to receive FAPE. FAPE requirements include the right to an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of the student’s circumstances.

If family caregivers believe that home-based instruction is necessary for safety and well-being, then the IEP team must consider the family’s request and document its decision process through Prior Written Notice (PWN). If the school makes a decision that the family disagrees with, parents of children with disabilities have Procedural Safeguards that protect their right to mediation or a complaint process.

Additionally, Washington families can contact their local school board, which is required to conduct its work through an Open Meeting process that allows for public comment. The Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) provides guidance to families and schools that need support to reach agreement.  

Will schools address social and emotional well-being?

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has made clear in its guidance that student well-being is a priority as schools reopen. State and federal dollars, including those from the American Rescue Plan, enable schools to hire staff such as nurses and counselors to support student well-being.

OSPI provides a guidebook: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools. Included is information about how state and federal dollars are awarded based on formal plans submitted by districts.

In their plans, districts must include statements about how student well-being will be supported. Districts are asked to prioritize social emotional learning and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations.

Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are likely to be met. If there are concerns, family members can meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized approach. For students with IEPs, needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services plan. For more information about Recovery Services, see PAVE’s article: Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen.

Families who have experienced elevated stress due to COVID and want more support can reach out to the Washington Listens help line: 1-833-681-0211.

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

Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen

A Brief Overview

  • Students who did not make adequate progress on IEP goals due to COVID-19 may need Recovery Services to get back on track. IEP teams are responsible to make student-centered decisions about this option for additional educational services.
  • Not all students need Recovery Services, but the state has made clear that IEP teams must discuss progress made and missed for each student: “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur,” according to OSPI guidance.
  • Students who graduated or turned 21 during the pandemic may be eligible for Transition Recovery Services. Please see PAVE’s additional article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.
  • Read on for tips to get ready to talk about Recovery Services with the IEP team.

Full Article

The 2021-22 school year comes with a unique set of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the diverse ways it impacted families and schools. For students who did not receive the Individualized Education Program (IEP) services they needed for appropriate progress, IEP teams are responsible to get students back on track.

The term “Recovery Services” was designated by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to describe additional special education services for students who lost progress or failed to make appropriate gains in learning because of the pandemic. Recovery Services are designed to meet the needs of individual students, and IEP teams that include family participants determine what services are necessary based on formal and informal data and team discussions.

State and federal dollars have been allotted to support student recovery, including through the American Rescue Plan. School districts are required to submit a formal plan before accessing these federal funds. Before making their final plans publicly available districts are required to seek public comment. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

OSPI’s guidance provides detail about state requirements for districts to consider social emotional learning, student well-being, and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations—not just academic recovery.

TIP: Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are likely to be met. If there are concerns that support will fall short, meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized, equitable approach. For students with IEPs, needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services plan.

For the most updated information and guidance about accessing materials in a language other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

How are Recovery Services determined?

To determine Recovery Services, IEP teams consider key questions:

  • What did the IEP team hope the student would accomplish by now? (Expected progress, skills, and services if there had been no pandemic)
  • What did the student accomplish or access? (Actual progress or regression and services delivered)
  • What is the gap, and how can the team design Recovery Services to fill that gap?

Compensatory Services are different

Another option for extra help is Compensatory Services. Compensatory Services are typically provided as the result of a complaint process if the school failed to serve a student’s IEP. In resolving a Due Process complaint, for example, an administrative law judge might order a school to provide Compensatory Services.

A court ruling or formal complaint process is not required; an IEP team can use its own discretion to develop and provide Compensatory Services if a student’s needs went unmet. The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recognized early in the pandemic that additional services would likely be necessary when schools resumed in-person instruction and issued this statement in a March 16, 2020, fact sheet:

“The Department understands that there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided. If a student does not receive services after an extended period of time, the student’s IEP Team, or appropriate personnel under Section 504, must make an individualized determination whether and to what extent compensatory services are needed consistent with the respective applicable requirements, including to make up for any skills that may have been lost.”

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.

Recovery Services are student- and family-centered

Not all students need Recovery Services, but the state has made clear that IEP teams must discuss progress made and missed for each student in the context of COVID: “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur,” according to OSPI guidance.

Like Compensatory Services and ESY, Recovery Services are generally provided outside of regular school. Their focus is helping the student achieve at the level expected if the pandemic hadn’t happened. Recovery services are not calculated as a 1:1 replacement for missed IEP service minutes. According to OSPI:

“Parents and families are key partners in identifying the need for recovery services, as they generally have current information about the student from the time of the school facility closures and since. As with all special education processes, school districts must provide language access supports, including interpretation and translation as needed, to support decisions about recovery services. School districts must ensure parents have the information and supports necessary to participate in the decision-making process.”

Extra services ensure access to FAPE

All options for additional school services are related to the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is what students eligible for special education services are entitled to. FAPE is ensured when an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of a child’s circumstances. That specific language comes from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.

TIP: Here’s a way to talk about Recovery Services using this information: Students who didn’t make appropriate progress on their IEP goals because of the pandemic now are entitled to additional services to access their right to FAPE.

Recovery Services are documented in a PWN

When they are delivered outside of regular school hours, extra services are documented in a Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is a record of an IEP meeting and pending program changes. A PWN is often attached to the IEP when the school shares a copy with the family. As with the IEP itself, family members of the IEP team can request changes or amendments to a Prior Written Notice (PWN).

When documenting Recovery Services, the PWN includes specific details about how, when, and where services are delivered; an explanation about why the services are necessary; data that influenced the decision; and additional options discussed and considered to meet student needs.

In rare cases an IEP team may determine that a student needs Recovery Services to be scheduled within the regular school day. In those cases, Recovery Services are listed in the IEP itself, with detail about when, where, and for how long the services are provided.

Recovery Services honor Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

The federal law that governs special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that special education services provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate. To honor a student’s right to LRE, an IEP team is responsible to organize Recovery Services into time slots that don’t interfere with the student’s LRE. Note that these decisions are based on student needs and capacities and not the resource interests of the district or school.

If, for example, a student’s IEP says the student is included in general education for 80 percent of the school day, Recovery Services cannot be scheduled to pull a student out of a general education class and placed in a special education classroom, thus reducing the LRE percentage.

For more information about LRE, see PAVE’s article: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

Here are examples of Recovery Services outside of regular school:

  • Additional in-person instruction before or after school
  • Additional special education services during scheduled summer, winter, or spring breaks
  • Additional special education services on district release days
  • Additional in-person or teletherapy services (Speech, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy…) before or after school or during school breaks
  • Additional high-school transition program services, including services that may be provided beyond age 21 and/or high-school graduation (see PAVE’s article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19).
  • Additional remote services before or after school or during school breaks, if the student has demonstrated adequate progress from services provided remotely. These might be provided online or through packets or other accessible means.
  • Additional in-person structured play groups or peer social groups before or after school or during school breaks, particularly to support lost progress in areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Tips to help families prepare to talk about Recovery Services with the IEP team:

  • Read and re-read the most current IEP: PAVE provides an article for navigating the document–Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP. If family has lost track of the current IEP document, request one from the school or district office.
  • On the IEP Cover Page, note the IEP’s annual review date and whether meetings were held on schedule during the pandemic.
  • 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 Recovery Services. Transportation options may include district transportation; regional, shared agreements; private transportation; or parent reimbursement for travel costs. Transportation is an IEP related service and 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.

For additional information, OSPI provides a downloadable document: Washington’s Roadmap for Special Education Recovery Services: 2021 & Beyond.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Return to School Roadmap includes national guidance for educators and families.

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.