Special Education During the Pandemic (What Parents Need to Know)

October 16, 2020

Insight from Nash Attorney Amy Altbach

Dan Rosen

Without a doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically disrupted the nation’s schools and has had an impact on all school-age children. But the virus outbreak has been particularly disruptive for the nearly seven million U.S. children who have special needs. As schools cautiously reopen with various mixtures of online and in-person learning, it is important for parents of disabled children to know that by law all children are entitled to a free and appropriate education (often referred to by the acronym FAPE). Every school district is obligated to find a way to provide a proper education for special needs students even during a pandemic.

Students with disabilities face unique challenges, as schools turn to remote learning in Illinois. Many students who received therapies in school, like physical therapy or occupational therapy, are no longer able to receive these needed services online. Also, there are no work stations or one-to-one aids to assist students. These are just a few examples of the many barriers for students with disabilities during the pandemic.

Certainly, all students lost some learning last spring. But, there’s a general belief that students with disabilities lost more learning. Parents need to know that their school must ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the same opportunities as other children. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has made it clear that “ensuring compliance with IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” Requirements are still in place for Individualized Education Program (IEP) development and review, evaluations and eligibility, the provision of special education services, data reporting, monitoring and funding. (For more background information about IEPs see my blog posts Do You Have an IEP for Your Child? And Do You Need One? [Part 1] and [Part 2] )

So, what as a parent can you do to advocate for your student? I think most parents did little in the spring hoping the pandemic would improve. Unfortunately, this did not happen. I think it’s important to realize that your student’s IEP was not written for online learning. Therefore, the first step is to request a new IEP meeting so the school team can address the different needs the student has in this unique environment. The student has in this unique environment. School can NOT take away services. It’s more to do with what the school can do in the meantime. As a parent, I would try to work with the school in good faith and mutually see what can be agreed upon.

The second step is to keep track of your student’s progress this year. You want to keep a record of data, whether it’s the student’s progress in reading fluency, behavioral patterns, or the student’s attendance in class. This record is important because if your student falls further behind and you can prove the regression in skills, then your student may be eligible for compensatory education.

Compensatory education is an educational fund of money used to help a child “catch up” or “make up” lost educational time. Many schools have stepped up and done admirable work to meet the educational needs of disabled children during the pandemic. However, because individual school systems have been given a great deal of flexibility on how they implement IEPs during this time, parents must stay involved and be persistent through the IEP process to get the required services for their children. Parents have the right to fight for the best individualized educational environment for their children whether that is in-classroom, online, or a combination of both.