While many students navigate their schools’ online learning environments without difficulty, students who receive special education may find the task daunting. Some special needs students have trouble logging into online learning programs, finding their teacher’s face on the screen, knowing when to speak and when to listen, or sitting in front of a computer screen for an hour. Many of these students were used to hours a day of special education instruction from professional specialists at school, while today they may struggle to get 8 hours of instruction at home per week, because those specialists may not be able to visit students at home. Parents, who know their students’ disabilities well but don’t have the professional training to instruct them for hours on end, are often overwhelmed. So school districts and special needs families must work together to bridge these gaps until in-person education returns after the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2018/2019 school year, 7.1 million students in the US received special education services. That’s 14% of public school students. Most of those students have an Individual Educational Plan, or IEP, which outlines the special education instruction and services the student needs to succeed in school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that students with IEPs are entitled to “free and appropriate public education,” or FAPE, as it’s commonly called. If a public school is completely closed, there are no services. Even when schools are open and in-person, it’s challenging to create, monitor, and administer IEPs successfully. And when schools are online, the IEP presents a huge challenge for both the schools and the families involved.
Diagnostic assessments help parents and teachers identify goals and gaps for IEPs. Let’s Go Learn takes it one step further by helping you write the narratives inside IEPs. This makes personalization, compliance, and administration of IEPs easier. You can find out more information about these features at the Let’s Go Learn website: https://www.letsgolearn.com/challenges/special-education/.
In a report to Congress on April 27, 2020, the US Secretary of Education reaffirmed the basic tenets of IDEA, much to the relief of parents of students with disabilities. The Secretary stated that school districts must overcome the obstacles of the COVID-19 pandemic through hard work and innovation. The Department of Education has proven to be flexible, but it has not given school districts the right to waive any portion of IDEA due to the pandemic. When the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020, the Secretary made the following recommendations:
- Schools can, and must, provide education to all students, including children with disabilities;
- The health and safety of children, students, educators, and service providers must be the first consideration;
- The needs and best interests of the individual student, not any system, should guide decisions and expenditures;
- Parents or recipients of services must be informed of, and involved in, decisions relating to the provision of services; and
- Services typically provided in person may now need to be provided through alternative methods, requiring creative and innovative approaches.
The Department of Education further created the following Q&A document “in response to inquiries concerning implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B procedural safeguards in the current COVID-19 environment”:
The key points of the document include:
- Parents may sign documents digitally
- Parents may request access to records, and public schools must generally respond within 45 days
- Schools must provide parents a copy of the procedural safeguards under IDEA at least once per school year
Essentially, the federal government has pushed the responsibility for implementing IEPs and assuring FAPE back onto local school districts and parents. The rules have not changed, but there is an explicit acknowledgement that implementing the IDEA during a pandemic is challenging. As expected, schools are reacting with a myriad of solutions and strategies, based on resources and the degree of COVID-19 community spread. Teachers and families realize that last spring was educational triage in many respects, so hopefully, this fall yields better solutions. While most public schools in the US are doing at least some education online for their neurotypical students (those without IEPs), some are trying to bring neurodiverse students (those with IEPs) back into the school district more frequently with strict social distancing rules in place.