During the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. With traditional school buildings closed nationwide, schools are navigating how to provide virtual access to quality education. Ensuring that students with disabilities have equitable access to remote learning is of paramount importance during this time. And, it is not as complicated as one might initially think.
In mid-March 2020, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) issued interim guidance regarding the delivery of special education and related services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This guidance clarified that if a local educational agency (LEA) continues to provide educational opportunities to the student population at large during a school closure, the LEA must ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Accordingly, following guidance from the federal government, schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided with the special education and related services identified in the student’s individualized education program (IEP) developed under IDEA, or Section 504 plan developed under the Rehabilitation Act.
Nine days later, the USDOE issued supplemental guidance to assist LEAs in implementing appropriate distance learning for students with disabilities. This guidance indicated that the IDEA allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The USDOE further clarified that the determination of how FAPE is to be provided may need to be different in this time of national emergency. FAPE may be provided consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing special education and related services to students. The USDOE clarified that this level of flexibility is permissible and available under the IDEA.
Fortunately, this flexibility gives schools great leverage to be creative in determining ways to meet the unique needs of each student. School districts can and should rise to the challenge of developing unique plans for each student with a disability to help them access their education during this unprecedented time. Many modifications and services can be effectively provided online. For example, if necessary, students with disabilities could be provided extra time on assignments, closed captioning on video lectures, access to print materials, virtual psychological or speech-language services, and much more.
Kennedy Krieger School Programs, all of which are members of the National Association of Private Special Education Centers, serve publicly funded students with disabilities. In collaboration with more than 14 LEAs in Maryland, they have developed more than 500 individualized “Continuity of Learning Plans” for their students with disabilities. These plans address individual IEP goals and objectives to be implemented through distance learning. Multidisciplinary teams collaborate to design and deliver distance learning at Kennedy Krieger using curriculum materials, modified and adapted by Kennedy Krieger teachers, to meet the unique needs of their learners; weekly interactive online classroom instruction; and clinical services (speech-language, occupational and physical therapies; counseling; and behavioral services) delivered through a telehealth model pioneered at Kennedy Krieger Institute. One Kennedy Krieger parent reported, “Today’s first live interactive lesson was incredible and a smashing success! Thank you for the enormous effort you are putting in to bring a meaningful experience to our kids!” Additionally, administrators from Kennedy Krieger School Programs are reporting an increase in parental engagement.
LEAs nationwide are working to develop interim plans to provide access to FAPE during school closures. Some LEAs are holding IEP meetings to discuss the interim learning plans, some LEAs are proposing learning plans as amendments to the IEP that do not require an IEP meeting, and some LEAs are considering their learning plans as documents separate from the IEP process. However, regardless of the LEA’s approach to developing interim learning plans, parents have the right to request IEP meetings to discuss the needs of their individual students. Parents who believe the plan for their student needs to be discussed in more detail are encouraged to contact their child’s IEP team to request a meeting.
These are unprecedented and uncertain times for parents, students, school systems, teachers and related service providers. Working collaboratively with all parties and thinking creatively is encouraged in order to secure appropriate services for each individual student. On Monday, Secretary DeVos and the USDOE refrained from recommending any waivers to Congress that would alter the tenets of IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; thus, protecting every child with a disability’s right to a FAPE.