Servicing Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 Pandemic
As schools across the nation scramble in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, schools are beginning to focus on students who receive special education services moving forward. Since schools are uncertain of the date that they will reopen their doors, advocates, educators, and parents have raised a concern about the students with disabilities. These students are more vulnerable when valuable learning time is lost. Especially those students that do not have the ability to learn successfully online and require a more hands-on approach.
Millions of children around the world have been affected by school closures as governments introduced social distancing and lock down measures in order to try to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. Rightfully so, most of these districts are concerned that they wouldn’t be able to effectively serve the students with special needs, and they would face lawsuits as a result. In fact, The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a webinar and Fact Sheet for education leaders aimed at ensuring that students’ civil rights are upheld while schools are closed. Legally, special needs services are guaranteed to all students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Students who are not being serviced during this crisis will be owed hours and hours of education. If districts fail to serve special education students, the district will be out of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act which prevents any school from offering students with disabilities an educational program through distance instruction.
What has happened?
Knowing their legal requirement to provide special needs services, school districts are scrambling to provide adequate services. They must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities. Many districts reached out to the U.S. Department of Education with their concerns to which the USDE responded by issuing guidance to the districts. In the guidance document issued last week, schools were given choices on how they could address the needs of special education students during the pandemic. Schools were also advised to be prepared to stay open all summer to fill the special education gap (which the federal government would support with any financial burden). The guidance document also provides a very helpful questions and answers document that outlines states’ responsibilities to infants, toddlers, and children with disabilities and their families, and to the staff serving these children. Betsy DeVos of the USDE stated that individual schools must make judgment calls for their campuses. However, every student will be legally owed those hours, and schools will legally have to comply.
Some districts opted to close school for the year for most students and remain servicing special education students only. Other districts decided to provide services to those students with an IEP in person, even though it may be unfeasible or unsafe for some institutions. The determination of how FAPE is to be provided may need to be different in this time of unprecedented national emergency. Federal disability law does allow for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities, and with this global pandemic (which has resulted in school closures), there is an inevitable delay in providing services or making decisions about how to provide services. IEP teams (as noted in the March 12, 2020 guidance) must make an individualized determination whether to resume normal service or to decide to what extent compensatory services may be needed when schools resume normal operations.
What does this mean?
Now that there is guidance from the U.S. Department of Education it has prompted some school districts to reverse their decision, and many have ramped up efforts to offer online learning. However, civil rights advocates remain concerned that a provision in the coronavirus package passed by Congress last month will let some districts off the hook for not serving kids with disabilities. The difficulties of homeschooling students with disabilities are mounting as time passes which will make it more difficult to meet legal learning requirements in the future.
In response to the effects on special education during the pandemic, the Department of Education encourages parents, educators, and administrators to collaborate creatively in order to continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities. By holding meetings through digital platforms and keeping track of their data and documentation will keep the districts in compliance and special education students serviced. Many of the following disability-related modifications may be effectively provided online:
- Extensions of time for assignments
- Videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting
- Accessible reading materials
- Speech or language services through video conferencing.
Also, there are low tech strategies that can provide for an exchange of curriculum-based resources, instructional packets, projects, and written assignments. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) understands that, during this declared national emergency, there may be additional questions about meeting the requirements of the federal civil rights law so they have provided information on their website.
Special Education online?
Districts need to ensure that they take into consideration the differentiation of instruction for students who learn differently. Differentiation is very important for all students but is the lifeline of learning for special needs students especially. When done online, Differentiated instruction has to meet the needs of all their students. This is often challenging, but it is not impossible! The move to online education has been largely driven by the need to maintain the 180-day minimum without taxing already stretched budgets or having to lay off teachers’ which usually makes a difficult situation even more unimaginable.
During this time of uncertainty, we are all still adapting and doing our best to continue the learning process with our students. Will teachers and administrators manage to create an entire system of online special education from scratch? Do teachers have the technological skills, equipment, or experience to implement those plans? Do families have enough computers for themselves and all their children? The questions are endless. With time, patience, and the propensity to learn, the hope is we will come out the end of this more prepared to take on learning with new tools at hand.