COVID-19 and Special Education: How You Can Help Your Child with Special Needs (4/22/20)

As we work our way through this crisis, the shutdown of the public school system looks like it will last months not days. As a result, most schools are switching to a distance learning model to teach students. Are the needs of our children with special needs being met? And if not, what can we do to protect their rights and assure them a free appropriate public education (FAPE)?

The response of states and school districts to the needs of the special education population vary widely. Some districts offer virtual IEP meetings while others have frozen students’ IEPs as is, with no new meetings until after schools physically reopen. Some districts provide appropriate accommodations to assist children with special needs while others do no more than send an email.

The first thing to remember is this. There is not a pandemic exemption to FAPE. If a school is offering distance learning to its students, then FAPE applies. The school must offer equal access to its students with disabilities (this may change depending on the recommendation of the Secretary of Education, more on this later).
The second thing to remember is that we are all suffering from this crisis. We need to understand that our fellow IEP team members are suffering too. We, as parents, need to be mindful of that and be flexible in our responses. Though it is certainly within our rights to request a virtual IEP meeting, there will be no in person therapy. Evaluations and assessments will also extremely difficult if not impossible. Our children deserve equal access to distance learning, but we must be flexible and creative in our solutions.

So what can we do?

The first thing is to take a deep breath. Because, as you know, taking care of a child with special needs is a marathon, not a sprint. Especially not a sprint through a toxic global pandemic. Everyone’s first priority should be to stay healthy.

OK? Breath taken?

The first step is to take stock of your child’s situation. What is the district offering to general education students? What is it offering to your child to give them equal access? Is it adequate? If not, what would make it adequate? Come up with a specific, actionable list and contact your IEP team members and/or the school district to make the district aware of your needs. Make sure a written record exists of all conversations. I can’t stress this enough.

Though the transition to distance learning is technically a change in placement that requires an IEP, be flexible. It will likely be difficult to schedule an IEP right away. If you can get the substantive changes you need through informal conversations with members of your IEP team, that’s your goal right now.
Even with the best accommodations, months of distance learning may cause regression. Document your child’s present level of performance now. This can be samples of their work or video, if you have access to it. Continue to track this throughout the shutdown, especially when the shutdown ends, to demonstrate any possible regression. Again, come up with specific actionable suggestions for what you want to address this regression. Two ways of addressing are Extended School Year (ESY) and Compensatory Education.

Something else to consider. None of the above will be possible if the Secretary of Education recommends waiving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as a result of the crisis. The Secretary has a month to decide if she wants to waive aspects of IDEA for up to nine weeks (45 school days) after school reopens. Even if she recommends it, it will still need congressional approval. So contact your senators, representatives and the secretary of education and let them know that waiving IDEA, even for a short period of time, is a very bad idea.
One last thing. If you want help developing a plan or talking to your IEP team, I am always available to advocate and/or vigorously represent the interests of your child in this difficult time.

About the Author: Chris Eisenberg is a Special Education Advocate and Attorney in the Los Angeles area and a proud member of COPAA.