A Brief Overview
- This article provides some considerations for families while students are doing school in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- As always, programming for students who qualify for special education services is uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and needs. Special education law maintains a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), although some aspects of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) may not be deliverable because of health and safety concerns.
- The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families.
- Updates and additional handouts for families are available in multiple languages on OSPI’s website: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19.
- The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by OSPI to support but not replace the IEP. Read on for more information about how to make contingency plans so students continue to make progress regardless of where education is provided.
Some teachers and family caregivers are cooking up clever ways to deliver learning to students during the public health crisis caused by COVID-19. Their recipes for success include carefully built schedules; a mix of curriculum materials that adapt to different settings; regular check-ins between school and family; social-emotional support strategies; and adaptability to address a student’s unique interests, talents, and needs regardless of where education is provided.
If that is not your family’s reality, you are not alone. During this national emergency, families are not expected to have a perfect plan for what to do and how to do it. Neither are schools, which are being asked to redesign themselves by the moment. This article provides some basic considerations for families and schools who serve students with special educational needs. This time of crisis clearly calls for communication, creativity, and unique efforts toward collaboration.
For more about social-emotional support for the family see PAVE’s article, Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe. PAVE also provides a library of short mindfulness practice videos for all ages/abilities: Live Mindfully.
School decisions are made locally
Uncertainty about the 2020-21 school year is ongoing. At an Aug. 5, 2020, press conference, Washington State Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that 2020-21 will be “the most complicated school year in American history.”
WA Governor Jay Inslee stated at the press conference that decisions about whether school buildings are open will be made locally. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington). Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. Public comment is part of each public meeting, and the open meeting rules apply in any space or platform.
No disability rights are waived
Reykdal has encouraged families to stay engaged with their Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams regardless of where the student is learning. “I want to constantly challenge you to work with your school district and reach out,” Reykdal said in April 2020.
“Make sure you understand who is responsible for delivering those services at this time and whether you think that IEP needs to be revisited. That is the right of parents, and that is the relationship that has to happen on the local level. We’ll keep guiding to this. The expectation is clear. We are delivering special education services. We are delivering supports for students with disabilities. There’s no exemption from that. There’s no waiver from that.”
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in July 2020 issued a guidebook, Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance, with information for educators and families. Included is a section about “recovery services” to support students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic.
TIP: Collaborate, communicate, keep careful records
Documentation about what is happening with the student is key to discussions about the IEP moving forward and whether the student gets recovery services. Family caregivers and school staff can collect and share notes that address these questions and more:
- Have educational materials been accessible during distance learning?
- What learning location will work for this student and the family moving forward?
- When or how often has the school communicated with the family, and what could improve that communication?
- Does the student have the tools and technology needed for learning?
- Where has the student made progress? (any bright spots?)
- Where has the student lost ground? (any lost skills?)
- What else needs to be addressed to meet the unique needs of this individual student, so the student can make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances?
Recovery services are not the same as compensatory services
To determine whether recovery services are needed, OSPI encourages IEP teams to:
- review progress toward IEP goals, and
- assess progress toward grade-level standards within the general education curriculum.
Both points are standard aspects of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that entitles eligible students to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA rights are not waived due to COVID-19.
OSPI makes clear that recovery services are part of the school day and are not the same as “compensatory services,” which are educational opportunities provided outside of regular school to make up for IEP services that were not provided even though the student was available to receive them. A student may qualify for compensatory services if it is determined through a dispute resolution process that the standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was not fully met in the provision of special education.
Recovery services, on the other hand, are considered in the context of the national health emergency that impacted all students and staff within the system. OSPI’s 2020 special education guidance document states: “The extent of a student’s recovery services, if needed, must be an individualized determination made by the IEP team, considering individual student needs, in the context of instructional opportunities provided to all students during the school facility closures.”
TIP: Consider a child’s total circumstances
Keep this in mind: A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. To meet the standard of FAPE, a school provides an individualized program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.” That phrase is part of IEP case law, from a 2017 Supreme Court ruling referred to as Endrew F.
A child’s circumstances include, but are not limited to:
- Strengths, talents, assets
- Family (work schedules, finances, housing…)
- COVID-related impacts (distance learning, medical fragility of self or family member, grief from a loved one’s death or economic hardships…)
- Mental health (impacts of social isolation, loss of friendship connections…)
- Whatever is true for the individual child!
A key question for all IEP teams: How can we create equitable educational opportunities, in light of all of these aspects of the child’s circumstances?
Section 504 protects students too
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also provides FAPE protections, and none of those rights are waived because of COVID-19. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act, so students who receive support through a Section 504 Plan have civil rights protections under that federal law. Students with IEPs have Section 504 protections in addition to the protections of the IDEA.
School staff and families might discuss whether a student on a Section 504 Plan has made adequate progress within the general education curriculum and whether the accommodations and modifications in the plan are correctly adjusted for the student to access learning in light of the pandemic. Families and schools can discuss what additional supports are needed so the student can access the curriculum equitably.
Recovery services may support academics or social emotional learning
OSPI provides a few examples of recovery services to help families and schools think creatively about what is possible:
- A student who regressed behaviorally during the closure may need new or different positive behavior interventions during the school day.
- A student who lacked social skills opportunities during the closure may need additional instruction in social communication.
- A student who lost academic skills during the closure may need additional supplementary aids and services in the general education classroom.
How and when additional services are provided is up to school/family teams to consider and may depend on the district’s reopening schedule. Some recovery services may be deliverable through distance learning, while others may require schools to be fully open.
Focus on key elements of learning
Within the Inclusionary Practices section of its reopening guidance, OSPI highlights four core areas that support planning and teaching students with disabilities in a variety of learning environments:
- Family Partnerships and Communication to foster continuity of learning, high expectations, and support to students through shared goals and partnerships between home and school.
- Student Engagement to maintain knowledge and skills, feelings of connectedness, curiosity, and a love of learning while progressing toward benchmarks and standards.
- Social-Emotional and Behavioral Supports to create positive learning experiences and shared understanding of expectations to help students achieve learning goals.
- Instructional Delivery and Universal Design for Continuous Learning to create conditions that make learning accessible, stimulating, relevant and rewarding so students will make academic gains and develop self-determination.
TIP: Parents parent, teachers teach
Parents can consider that first and foremost, their role is to parent. When all schools were in distance-learning mode, the Florida Inclusion Network provided Tips for Families in Supporting Their Children with Disabilities in Virtual Formats. Included is this recommendation:
“It can be confusing for students if families try to assume the role of teacher. Explain to your child that their teacher is still their teacher, and that you are in communication with the teacher to help them learn at home.”
Presume competence and maintain high expectations
OSPI’s resource about special education access in the 2020-21 school year contains a chapter called Inclusionary Practices Across the Continuum of School Reopening Models. The first paragraph states (emphasis added):
“In the context of change, students with disabilities are most successful when educators and families presume competence in what they are capable of learning and accomplishing in school. Rather than view student challenges or inability to meet learning objectives in new and different learning environments as a deficit in the student due to a disability, recognize how instruction or environments may be affecting what a student learns and how they demonstrate what they know.
“Students learn best when they feel valued and when people hold high expectations. When students cannot communicate effectively, or behavior impedes participation and learning, explore multiple pathways for understanding and assume students want to learn but may have difficulty expressing their needs.”
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) encourages inclusion
Federal special education law (IDEA) entitles students to individualized education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible. While education is being provided in a mix of environments, IEP teams may need to think in new ways about how the right to LRE is protected.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) issued a policy brief regarding LRE in the wake of COVID-19. The brief includes examples of how LRE might be provided for a student in a virtual, hybrid, or traditional model of school. For example, a fictional 3rd grader with special education services to support learning in math and English Language Arts (ELA) could attend a virtual classroom with all students and receive instruction in break-out rooms with math and ELA teachers at additional times.
The right to LRE is not waived due to COVID-19. “NASDSE stands ready to support its members with the effort of ensuring all students receive FAPE in the LRE,” the brief concludes.
Language access is protected
Some families face barriers related to language access. Under state and federal law, all parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand, and students have a right to accessible learning materials. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.
A Continuous Learning Plan may help with organization
A Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is a tool developed by the state in spring 2020 to help IEP teams make contingency plans. The plan does not replace a student’s IEP, but rather documents individual decisions for special education services when a student is not fully attending in-person school.
The plan is part of a downloadable document published April 7, 2020: Supporting Inclusionary Practices during School Facility Closure. Glenna Gallo, assistant superintendent of special education, worked with many agency partners to design the 31-page guidance document. The introductory paragraphs include the following statement:
“Providing equitable access and instruction during these times will require creative and flexible thinking to support continuous learning, where students and educators are in different locations. Educators and families should explore creative ways to respond to diverse languages, cultures, socio-economic status, abilities, and needs.”
Review the Present Levels of Performance
To consider what is most important for learning, regardless of where education is provided, IEP teams can carefully review the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, which is the first section in a student’s IEP. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.
PAVE also provides an article and a handout to help families participate in the goal-setting process: IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals.
Request an IEP meeting to clarify how services are provided
Family caregivers can request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns. For health and safety reasons, the meeting may be virtual, by phone, in a park…. Teams can get creative to meet all needs. PAVE provides an article about requesting a meeting and a letter template to support a written request. An additional article: Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting.
While reviewing and amending the IEP, the team might consider the “service matrix,” which is the chart on the IEP document that shows how many minutes of each service a student receives, and which school staff are responsible to provide the service. An IEP team might decide to amend the matrix to reflect services provided remotely versus services provided in person at school.
Another option is to document on the IEP matrix the services to be provided when in-person school fully resumes and to use the optional Continuous Learning Plan template to document contingency plans during remote learning.
Before meeting with the school, family caregivers may want to design their own Handout for the Team to share their specific ideas and concerns.
Big Picture goals to consider
OSPI’s guidance includes the following tenets of inclusionary practices:
- All students feel a sense of belonging and value, as full members of the school community.
- All students have access to equitable and high-quality, meaningful instruction.
- Instruction is culturally responsive, and student and family centered.
TIP: When communicating with school staff, families can have these tenets ready and request that each one is addressed somehow through the planning.
Additional ideas to support families
- If a child is doing school from home, try to set up comfortable, adaptable spaces for learning. Include alternatives to sitting for children who need variety, sensory support or more movement. If the IEP includes accommodations for special seating, consider if those ideas could work at home.
- On days when school is integrated with home life, establish a schedule that includes breaks (recess/nature walks) and activities of daily living. The amount of academic time needs to consider all impacted family members. Here are sample family schedules: COVID 19 Schedule From Motherly, Get-Organized-Mom.com, Homeschool.
- Make sure each day includes time away from screens to reduce eye strain and fatigue from being in one physical position too long.
- During academic learning time, limit distractions from siblings, gaming devices, tablets, television shows, etc.
- Find or create support networks. Some Parent-to-Parent groups are meeting virtually, and individuals can make agreements to check on each other. The Arc of Washington State provides information about regional P2P networks.
- Be patient with your child, teachers, medical providers, and yourself. No one has ever been here before, and all are trying to figure it out.
PAVE staff are available to provide 1:1 support. Click Get Help at wapave.org to fill out a Helpline Request form. For additional resources related to the pandemic itself, see Links to Support Families During the Coronavirus Crisis.